When I wrote my memoir Blackbird, I told the truth of how my mother died when I was seven and my father died when I was nine. I also told the truth of how I fell through the cracks of my family support system and found myself both homeless and preyed on by abusers—psychological and physical. These were not pretty stories.
I had been trained as a journalist in hard news events, which meant I reported on murders, drug busts, domestic strife, abductions and even gang activity. In early drafts of Blackbird, I decided I would write like I reported which meant I would give the hard cold facts.
My goal? Let the reader come to his or her own conclusions.
My rationale? If I could survive it, you could read it.
Thanks to the gentle and not-so-gentle guidance of many good teachers and editors, I made different decisions in my later drafts.
Memoir is not a news report. Memoir is a genre that invites the writer to use the tools found in literature in order to explore memory. These tools include the use of vivid details and scenes that evoke deep emotional responses in the reader. When you write memoir, you are going to create something that makes the reader “feel” a great deal.
It was Maya Angelou who said, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This is never truer than when we write a memoir. We have all read memoirs that made us feel so deeply that we couldn’t fall asleep at night, had us holding our children closer or even made us become kinder and gentler people as a result. We have also read memoirs that made us so furious we vowed to never read another book by that writer.
The difference between the good memoir and the unbearable memoir is care for the reader and a good measure of restraint.
As David Huddle writes in his book The Writing Habit, restraint means decorum, control, a holding back, a measuring of language against silence. Huddle, a professor of literature at the University of Vermont, is referring to the fact that writers are artists and the artist sensibility is what is needed when approaching storytelling. Memoir is no exception.
Yes, we as memoir writers will admit we have had a pile of misfortune heaped upon our shoulders and on our backs, but we must also recognize that how we tell our story truly matters. A recounting of the grisly details does not make a work readable or even interesting. A writer of memoir must remember he or she is digging toward meaning, essence, the pith and the gold that is lodged away at the core of a lived experience. The grisly details can lead us to that core but in the final edit, many of these details must to be carved away.
As my former teacher, Tom Spanbauer (Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, Far Away Places, In the City of Shy Hunters), used to say, “never drop the reader.”
To me this translate to mean hold your reader close. Don’t let a reader “fall out” out of your story or away from you as the guiding force who knows all and tells all (in careful measure). Lots of vivid details told with balance and attention to space, place, time, people are necessary to paint your story in the readers mind. Understanding the psychology of your reader—what makes him and her tick—is also important. For example, we all know that a reader is a human being and that human beings want to feel safe, they also want to be in on the secret and they want to know things are going to turn out okay, or if they aren’t going to turn out okay, they need to know they won’t be left dissatisfied about how things turned out. This means you need to wrap up your loose ends. Don’t leave the reader hanging (unless that is your goal and you want them to buy your sequel). The bottom line is that you want your reader to know you’re on their side—not against them. You want your reader to know the writer is working hard to get to true meaning under the events of her life. The reader respects the writer who struggles on the page and presents this struggle with humanity and humility.
It’s a balancing act. We must have room to “get it all out” of our system and write poorly. That’s a huge part of being a memoir writer. But we must also know when it’s time to write well and when we think about the reader—with kindness, empathy and even a share of gentle compassion—we are on our way to creating a better book.
TALK BACK: What memoirs have you read that made you feel amazed, blown away and inspired? What memoirs have you read that made you feel furious? Leave your comment
Image Credit: Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Woman Reading a Book, 1845/Flickr.com
Learn more about Jennifer Lauck at Jennifer Lauck Memoir Writing.com