Answers To Your Memoir Questions

You might ask, "Why "memoir" and not "autobiography"?

A memoir has limits. It's a project or more exactly, the memory of solving a problem in a specific part of life. It's not advice, but confessional, honest; the voice of the teller has an attitude about events and people appropriate to the state of mind at the remembered time. Memoir works by connecting the reader to the lived experience on going problem solving; set aside lessons learned, moral or ethical advice, or grand sermonizing, let the events speak for themselves.

Recall and recount decisions and perceptions. In fact, emotions and lessons need never be overtly stated as long as the sense experiences---the perceptions, bodily sensations, the inner reasons for behavior---are recounted.

Why? Because experience is spontaneous, it happens in your nerves, or your choices, or your strategies; meanwhile, emotions and lessons are usually additions we supply later. If you stick with your experiences and avoid judgments, you may discover a much richer life.

Here are the answers to the questions I'm most frequently asked about memoir:

1. Write the whole truth as you recall it, but also give yourself permission to invent details and dialog to make the story better. Yes, you may have to compress several events into one event; that's OK. By freeing yourself to imagine the best story, you will activate your memory to be more accurate than if you can only relate what "really" happened. Details, especially details of place, taste, smell, and texture, can stimulate memories located out of reach of the conscious mind. Even when you think you're making them up.

2. In your draft, give yourself permission to write for yourself; don't worry about offending anyone or making a book deal. Your purpose is to unearth the most authentic, most moving story you can. So write in your own voice: that voice you have that is silly, childish, self- conscious, zany, but authentic to who you were then; summoning that inner identity will make connections between strange things, words and thoughts you wouldn't use today. Try to recall and write everything---and this is important---including the stuff you really don't want anyone to know: you can always take it out, but it will help your recollections.

3. Let it flow the way you feel it. Don't worry about grammar and punctuation or anything you've ever learned in English class. Just tell stories in any way you want to. In any order they come to mind. Write fast, and worry about how to put it in order later. By the same token, don't worry about impressing your friends or family or instructing some imaginary audience who will "benefit" from your experience. You weren't a performing circus dog when you had your experiences, don't write like one when recalling them.

4. When drafting, use the real names and real places, and, yes, you have to include embarrassing, shameful, or disgusting truths. This will free and accelerate connections in your memory. Don't fret about law suits or being judged or literary quality. If you start censoring yourself, you'll stifle your deepest (best) memories. Moreover, don't be an idiot; keep your manuscript in a safe place where no one else will stumble on it.

5. You need to feel secure and insulated to nurture your memory and creativity, so don't share your work with friends or family because you are either 1) inviting well meaning people to be critical, or 2) seeking praise for something incomplete. 1) The more criticism you get, the less you'll feel like writing. And 2) seeking praise is that circus dog thing. For good feedback, consider a workshop of other writers who have a confidentiality agreement, or employing an editor. If you publish, your editor will edit, and your imprint will have a battalion of lawyers to advise you about what might need to be changed.

Remember: Write fast. Very fast. Open your memories and follow them around as quickly as your can. When you're drafting you need to get it out. Get to the action: what did you want, how did you get or not get it? Who's doing what to whom, and what else happens?

Please don't edit yourself, don't make "perfect sentences" or spell out insights; tell what you were doing and why.

Revision is usually a waste of time until you have written a fair amount. You will learn by writing actual words and lots of them (not by thinking or outlining or rewriting what you wrote yesterday). What you learn by writing to the end of the first draft determines how you will revise.

This is important, read other memors like Angela's Ashes, The Glass Castle, Running With Scissors, Liar's Club, This Boy's Life, The Color of Water, and for a couple different things: Persepolis, Maus, and Santaland Diaries.

Memoir is memory, not truth. It's a good story---don't sweat anything else. It's your story: own it, have fun, enjoy the re-discovery process, let your remembering voice surprise you.