The greatest story you could write is the one you experienced yourself. Knowing where to start is the hardest part, but it just got a little easier with this essential guidebook for anyone wanting to write a memoir.
Did you know that the #1 thing that baby boomers want to do in retirement is write a bookabout themselves? It's not that every person has lived such a unique or dramatic life, but we inherently understand that writing a memoirwhether it's a book, blog, or just a letter to a childis the single greatest path to self-examination.
Through the use of disarmingly frank, but wildly fun tactics that offer you simple and effective guidelines that work, you can stop treading water in writing exercises or hiding behind writer's block. Previously self-published under the title, Writing What You Know: Raelia, this book has found an enthusiastic audience that now writes with intent. While there have been other writing books, there's nothing like Marion Roach Smith's The Memoir Project.
|Publisher:||Grand Central Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
She is a former staff member of the New York Times and has written for the New York Times Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Prevention, New York Daily News, Vogue, Newsday, Good Housekeeping, Discover , and American Health. Marion has been a commentator on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, and writes and records daily and weekly spots on Martha Stewart Living Radio, Sirius 112/XM 157.
Read an Excerpt
The Memoir ProjectA Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life
By Roach Smith, Marion
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2011 Roach Smith, Marion
All right reserved.
THIS IS A SIMPLE tale. I was born in the Little Neck Public Library in Queens, New York. Next to the card catalogue. Well, that’s the way I remember it, and I’m sticking to that story, no matter what. Go into therapy and you are likely to be asked, “What is your first memory?” And for many people, this is a rare opportunity to unlock the floodgates, remove the tourniquet, and let the platelets flow. But when I want to investigate myself, I type, and when I ask myself to re-create those first moments, what gets typed up is me standing on my tiptoes, peering into a card catalogue.
It was a long wooden drawer that may have pulled out for a mile and a half. Like a great straight snake, right at hip bone level to my mother, exactly at eye level to me, it slid out and I waited.
“I want you to see something,” I think she said.
A gorgeous woman; I would have done anything she told me. This was the person who held the keys to the kingdom of power, the parent who had taught me to read, sitting with me as one day the letters turned into words, and the words into sentences, and the sentences into the authority that every child craves—to learn, to retell, and to entertain. My mother’s red fingernails, lacquered to match her lips, were flipping like sexy windshield wipers through the cards, one after the other. Where were we going this time? I wondered. Maybe I was five. We had long before run through the Golden Books and had recently been to meet Black Beauty, and we were about to read The Pushcart War, a book about the Lower East Side. We had dabbled in poetry and had read of the requisite heroes and demons of the Bible.
Suddenly, she stopped, lifting up a single card. On it was my father’s name: James P. Roach.
“Look at that!” she said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”
It was. In that snug, long drawer, there for the world to stumble upon, to cross-reference, to read: my dad. A sportswriter, he was in the card catalogue. Other girls wanted to be veterinarians, to marry rich, to be Rockettes. From that moment on, what I wanted most was a place of my own in the Dewey decimal system.
Shortly after that day, we moved into a house with a den in which was placed a desk and a typewriter, and that’s where I watched my father write on deadline. It was there that he was discovered one afternoon, sitting hunched over that typewriter, running his hands through his thin hair. For the previous three days, painters had been in the house changing the color of every single room to champagne—the white of the 1970s. On the fourth day of this monotonous work, a lone painter followed the sound of the clacking keys. The encounter went something like this:
“Mr. Roach,” said the painter.
Mr. Roach looked up and said nothing.
“It seems a shame,” the painter continued.
Mr. Roach said, “Who are you?”
“The painter?” the man asked, now unsure himself.
“Yes.” My father looked back to his blank page.
“That dining room. You want that champagne, too?”
“Like the rest of the rooms?”
“The rest of the rooms?”
“In this house? Since when?”
“And the dining room?”
The writer cast a look at the clock, the typewriter, then the painter. The story was due. “What nationality are you?” he asked.
“Croatian,” said the painter.
“Such lovely national colors,” said the writer. “Use those.”
Back to the typewriter, the assignment, and the silence—which was broken six hours later by the earsplitting scream of a woman viewing her red, white, and brown dining room for the first time. It may have been the only time Jim Roach expressed himself in anything other than words in his own home. But it is worth noting that the dining room walls remained a deep red, the ceiling a pure white, and the beams their natural brown for as long as we had the house.
It seemed to me that to get into the stacks of the library, writers had to keep their heads down, no matter the consequences.
And writing does have consequences. Especially if you tell the truth, which is what memoir requires. When my friend Elizabeth recently found out that she has multiple sclerosis (MS), she thought about that for a while and then wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times. Some years before, via in vitro fertilization, she had gotten pregnant, given birth, and then donated some of her unused embryos to science. After her MS diagnosis, she wrote how she wished those cells had gone toward fetal tissue research for her illness and others. Upon publication, accolades came in from her peers, but she also had to ditch her home phone number because of the phalanx of wingnuts calling to say they would have adopted those embryos.
On some level you’ve always known that consequences lurk when telling your tale—a chill from the family, crank calls on your telephone, or perhaps a unique terror that comes from retracing something to its beginning to understand the power it has over your life. Which is why this morning, when you could have been writing, you rechecked your closet for what you’ll wear on the Today show during your book tour.
Today may or may not be in your future, but what is entirely possible is that you’ll lose somebody’s affections if you tell the truth. However, I am quite sure that if you tell the truth, you will feel something real. “Feeling something real” is where I prefer to live, trying to palpate the small moments of life, the moments of intuition, the places where we fail and where we change. Right now my life is packed with middle-aged friends engaged in all manner of dangerous behaviors again—the ones they forgot we did in our twenties. They insist that they are merely trying to feel something. I suggest honestly writing about your life. You’ll feel something. I promise.
But first, you have to agree to be taught. This is harder than it sounds. Which is why I start the book off not with a classic introduction but with an opener called “Required Reading.” Because like everyone who wants to write a memoir—via writing vignettes expressly for their children to read, blogging, writing essays, or taking on an entire book—you want to skip the intro and get right to the part where I assign you the writing exercises, prompts, or bulleted list of killer tips that will fritter away the time until you buy your next book on writing.
You won’t find any of those insulting tasks here. From this moment on, you are writing with purpose and are no longer merely practicing. You are writing with intent. So read the book and follow the advice.
There once was a time when I was terribly polite about this work and what it requires. At cocktail parties, when someone asked me what I do, I’d smile just above my string of pearls and reply, “I’m a writer,” and nearly to a person, he’d say he was going to write when he retired. Nodding, I’d wish him the best with it and slink off to find the canapés, wondering what was wrong with me that I was going to devote my whole life to writing, when clearly people who were smarter than I could put it off until they got around to it.
Now I’m not so polite. Now, when someone tells me that he is going to become a writer when he gets around to it, I reply, “And what do you do?” And sometimes he says, “Oh, I’m a brain surgeon,” and that’s my favorite reply. Then I can say, “When I retire, I’m going to become a brain surgeon,” with just a hint of a sneer above those pearls.
This is serious work. And it cannot be reduced to generic writing exercises and prefabricated prompts. And ask yourself these questions: Have any of those ditties ever gotten you published? Has scribbling from the right side of your brain, or getting in touch with your angel’s feather, or keeping morning pages put you where you want to be as a writer? After reading one of those books of exercises, or subscribing to yet another Web-based, prompt-list newsletter, have you actually finished that letter to your child that you long to give her? I doubt it. I suspect that those manners of nonsense have instead stolen what little time you had for writing.
How do I know? Because my classes are filled with people recovering from those very exercises, people whose sole relationship to writing was practicing. Also in my classes: aspiring authors who detoured into inertia after listening to parents, spouses, nuns, or teachers tell them that memoir writing has no value.
Its value is inestimable. Which is why you have to be taught to do it.
Right out of college, I got a job at the New York Times, where I met a fine editor who was roundly disliked by his peers. I always suspected he was unpopular because he had a slogan under the Plexiglas top of his desk that read, “I believe in learning the craft of writing.” He would actually sit with young writers and help craft their stories, and in doing so, craft the writers themselves. Pretty much everyone else there assumed that you came fully loaded to the Times. I did not. I wasn’t very good, but I was better when I left. Most of the other people at the Times would just as soon have ripped a hunk out of your thigh as help you, but not this guy. And so, of course, he became known as being soft and was soon moved someplace where he’d do less damage than he apparently did by encouraging young people to write.
You have to agree to be taught because there is no reason in the world that you should know how to do this. Which aspect of your life could possibly prepare you to sit alone in a room, day after day, with your own thoughts, reach down, pull up only those ideas that apply to the topic at hand, toss the others aside, and marshal the ones needed into logical, entertaining order on deadline? That’s why most people just talk about the books they are going to write, and few actually write them. Journalists who do this are referred to by their peers as “talking journalists,” and not with any affection, especially when they monopolize dinner parties with rollicking tales from the book they keep meaning to write. Unwittingly, they are revealing just how hard this is. Alone in a room with their own thoughts, they focus on how the color of the trim clashes with the color of the walls, or how very much they want to cultivate exotic orchids. Who could write under those conditions?
It’s like that old joke: An elderly guy hires a hooker, goes to a motel, and lies down on the bed, telling her that before he can perform, she must go into the bathroom and run the shower so that it sounds as if it’s raining. She does, and then comes back to the bedroom only to be sent back into the bathroom to shake the shower curtain and make the sound of thunder. She does, and getting just the tiniest bit exasperated, she returns to see him sprawled on the bed. “Turn the light on and off,” he says. “Make like it’s lightning.” So she’s banging the shower curtain, the water is pounding onto the porcelain tub, and she’s turning the light on and off, calling to him from the bathroom, “Are we going to do this? You know, have sex?” And the old man shrugs, calling back, “What, in this weather?”
To write, you have to ignore the weather, which is made up of every manner of distraction you know, including those books of writing exercises.
You want to write? Then let’s write. Maybe it is only now occurring to you that you want to write down some scenes from your life. That’s wonderful, since it is never too late—or too early—to begin. Perhaps this book was a gift from someone who wants to read those tales you tell. What a lovely compliment the giver is offering by encouraging you to write it all down. Don’t worry if you think of yourself as inexperienced: You’ll be fine. One of the few things I know for certain is that everyone has a story. Also, whether you are a beginner or someone who has written for years, your challenges are nearly the same, since memoir writing is a great equalizer, smoothing the playing field to a large degree, while pocking it with the very same hazards for all.
And don’t worry if you’ve never kept a journal, notebook, or scrapbook and can’t imagine how you’ll remember the details of life. Throughout this book I am going to tell you tales that will stir up your subconscious, as well as teach you methods for researching your own life. We’ll get to your material. I promise.
So let’s begin together, literally on the same page, and with a tacit agreement that from this moment on, we will write no exercises; we will write for real. With a goal. Maybe that goal is to get on NPR. Good. The back page of the New York Times Magazine, perhaps? Fine. Maybe you want to publish a book? Great. Maybe your intent is to give your spouse the gift of a tale from your marriage. Perfect. Maybe it’s to tell your kids the story of their ancestors’ emigration, or about the crazy middle-of-the-night rush to the hospital that resulted in their births. Even better. And here’s some good news: When you write memoir, you’ll be writing what you know. That’s right: what you already know. From now on, that’s your job, and nowhere in that job description does it include lighting a scented candle, throwing on a shawl, and scribbling exercises or prompts in a notebook until you get bored and head back to your macramé.
From this minute forward, your intent is to write with purpose. And trust me when I tell you that the difference between morning pages and writing with purpose is the difference between a wish and a prayer.
Not long after my father’s encounter with the painter, a family vacation in the Caribbean brought into my life what I now call “cheeky birds.” A creative taxonomist, my father cavorted with language, hybridizing terms that cross-bred his British heritage with American expressions. When we were small, and still under the spell of believing everything he said to be true, I’d point to a dog, for instance, and ask my dad its breed. He’d nod sagely and reply, “North American Under-Brogan.” It was some years before I understood that miniscule mutts who got underfoot were not, in fact, named for an obscure English word for “shoe.”
I’ve come to think of memoirists as the cheeky birds of writers, “cheek” being a British word for “bold.” The brash creatures to whom my dad bestowed this name distinguished themselves by swooping onto our hotel patio to perch on our plates, balance on our pencils, and eat from our hands. This is what you are now allowed to do—to glide into the banquet that is your tale and take what you need from the feast. By the time you finish this book, you will have a new appreciation of your very own bird’s-eye view and what it is you can do with it when you write.
And when you do, things will change, since the transition to reporting on one’s own life can reap breathtaking results. After you learn how to truly observe the life you live, the result may be excellence—in both the writing and in the living. And when my students look unconvinced and start to shift in their seats, I tell them the story of Arthur Miller and his uncle Manny Newman, the salesman who committed suicide and whose two sons Miller interviewed before writing his great play Death of a Salesman. And then I tell them about the brave woman in my class who presented her dying husband the book-length story of their wonderful union on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. And then I tell them about my first autopsy.
A few years ago, while writing a book, I went behind the scenes in the world of forensic science, attending forensic entomology school and blood-spatter-analysis class, and somehow I managed not only to enter the morgue but also to stay for a five-and-a-half-hour autopsy, my first.
And it was there, as the fear subsided, that I inched closer to the body of a man dead ten days, and marveled at the connection between things. In the big experience, it was the small things that changed me: The rib cage’s perfect arch harboring the heart made me weep; witnessing it felt like a near occasion to faith.
The morgue also presented some unique metaphors for understanding writing, the most profound of which was there in the spine: the vertebrae, those odd individual muffins of bone that hold us together. Take one out, weigh it in your hand, bounce it up and down and have a look at it, and that’s an essay, or a blog post, each of which must be as precisely designed as individual vertebrae. Snap that vertebra back into being an essential part of the spine and the spine is whole again, much like a long-form memoir.
Seeing our connections, considering them, describing them—that’s where writing what you know begins. I’m quite sure of that, as well as of a few more things, at least when it comes to writing memoir.
Here they are.
You Must Be Present to Win
FLANNERY O’CONNOR SAID that anyone who survives childhood has enough material to write for the rest of her life. She’s right. Writing about yourself and your crazy (or not-so-crazy) family can be the big vein, if you’re ready. But if you’re not, it’s the brick wall. Indeed, the single biggest reason for not being prepared to write what you know is not knowing how to dig among your stuff to get what you need.
So let’s see if we can correct that.
In any decent game of chance, you must be present to win. That’s also true with writing what you know, where paying attention is the skill you need to succeed. What you pay attention to is detail, and that skill is like sorting jewelry: Get a good loupe, learn to focus it, and then scramble amid your dazzling, jagged facets for only those few pieces that need apply.
What Ernest Hemingway taught us in the last century still gives good weight: What you leave out of the story is perhaps more important than what you put in. It does me no good to know someone’s height, weight, and eye color, if those details do not drive your story forward. No matter what the level of general writing experience students have, when new to memoir, writers tend to relate when they were born, what someone else looks like, or the exact years during which they attended elementary school. Writing memoir does require including accurate facts, but writing good memoir requires more than that, and it begins with paying a particular sort of attention.
William Maxwell, the fiction editor of the New Yorker for more than forty years—he edited John Updike and John O’Hara and John Cheever—was a marvelous fiction and nonfiction writer in his own right. He believed that to write, all you need is to remember the slam of your childhood home’s screen door. He’s right, too, because you have what you need to write what you know. Just like Dorothy’s ruby-red shoes, you’ve had it on you all the time. It’s what you’ve been doing with those details that’s the problem, if you’ve either done nothing, have been wasting precious time on mere exercises, or are under the mistaken belief that anyone might eagerly slog through pages of facts about your life.
To transpose your life’s details into real content—to write with intent—I’d add to the Flannery-Ernest-William adages that you must be hospitable. I have only one maxim in my office, on a little index card. It reads, “Be hospitable.” And it has been there through four books, countless magazine pieces, radio essays, blog posts, and op-eds.
I’ve read that the great screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky kept a little nudge on his desk that said, “He gets it,” and I understand how that could be the sole encouragement a screenwriter might need. In any good movie, someone has to change and be transformed. He will reach some transcendence, no matter how small. To do so, the protagonist must “get” the idea in play. For you to get the idea of writing memoir with intent, I suggest you be hospitable, though it’s harder than it sounds.
THE WAY YOU WEAR YOUR HAT, THE WAY YOU SIP YOUR TEA
Being hospitable begins with preparing a clean, well-lighted desk, and reporting to it each day, at the same time if possible. Even if forty-five minutes is all you can allot, allot it and show up. Woody Allen said that 80 percent of success is showing up, and while he’s right, I’d remind you that showing up at a desk with overdue income-tax forms on it doesn’t work. Almost to a person, my students who are in recovery from mere writing exercises report that they write in bed or while cadging a moment at the bus stop or kitchen table, tucking in writing as time allows.
I suggest you try a little hospitality instead. Being hospitable requires that you slow down the process and do some reporting before you begin to write. Carry an index card in a pocket and in your wallet, and the next time you watch Meryl Streep transport herself from one emotion to the next, note the spare gesture she employs. Capture effective dialogue you overhear. When you attend your daughter’s fourth-grade piano recital, jot down an impression or two. It’s okay, I promise, since it beats the hell out of all those other parents texting on their BlackBerries. I keep several running lists in a notebook in my car, from titles of those songs that are the soundtrack of my life, to those new and different things people seem to need to do while driving. At some point, I’ll turn them into pieces, but I can’t use these details later if I don’t have them. And don’t expect to carry these home in your head. Instead, write them down. And while I do shun those people texting at their children’s performances, in other spaces, personal digital devices are fine tools for noting something that stirs you. Text yourself or make a file for your observations. In a pinch, I have even called myself and left a voice mail to remind me of something I’ve seen. Once you begin, you’ll get comfortable with reporting on your life and will find that you’ll use whatever means are at hand. What this process does not require is an expensive digital recorder, leather notebook, or Cartier pen. That’s showing off.
Here’s a tip I learned from my husband, a fine former reporter and a really great newspaper editor: Get yourself a pack of inexpensive spiral pocket notebooks, and when you are taking in a landscape—whether emotional or physical—turn that notebook sideways, like a sketchbook. I know how crazy this sounds, but you won’t care after you see how effortlessly it signals your subconscious that you’re looking for something different. Turn it vertically to report the who, what, when, and where of the topic. Go sideways for the why, where you deepen and broaden your view. Your subconscious loves little cues like this; they help you connect with those screen door slams and childhood survival skills.
Don’t think so? Ever notice how distinct smells send you reeling back twenty years or how the way a man wears his hat or sips his tea conjures memories of a long-lost love? It’s a do-it-yourself world when writing memoir; we need that screen door of yours to slam just right, and if all it takes is to turn a notebook sideways, I say turn the damn notebook sideways and reap the rewards.
Being hospitable begins with the tools you need for writing what you know—notebooks, pens, and a clean desk—and then paying attention to the goods, the sounds of those porch doors. Next we learn the local customs of writing what you know. In memoir, there are three basic guidelines.
1. Writing Memoir Is About Telling the Truth
MISS EMILY DICKINSON’S POCKET GUIDE TO WRITING
But which truth? Whose truth? What about the other person’s version? And what, by the way, is the truth?
When you consider the truth, if you try weighing it in your hand or giving it a good look, it doesn’t bear up to much scrutiny, if only for the simple fact that there is always someone else’s version of it. You say your side is based on the facts. I know. But so does your sister, and according to her, you started it.
How to tell the truth?
Write what you know.
“Here’s how I see it” is a powerful phrase to keep in mind, as is “Here’s how it happened to me,” or “Here’s how I felt.” Make no claim that your version is the only one. If you do not shoot for the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we’re going to get along just fine. Understanding the difference is essential to your success.
And whenever I need some help understanding something, I think of Emily Dickinson, whose rumored inscrutability can really shake up a memoir writer’s head.
In poem 1129, she says:
Tell All the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
What does she mean?
Who knows? It’s Emily Dickinson. And to make things more slippery, she ends that particular poem with these lines:
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind
And she didn’t annotate her work, leaving us to make of it as we want. What I want is to point out the words “slant,” “circuit,” and “gradually” for you to consider as Emily’s Pocket Guide to Writing. You could do worse. What we want from you is your take on something, laid out a truth at a time, slowly.
Foremost in memoir, we expect your voice. That’s the slant: your take on the world. It’s what we’re looking for when we buy your book, listen to you on the radio, pay for a magazine that features your essay, or read your blog.
“Circuit” reminds me that I need to make the connections between my ideas quite clear. I’ve lived these scenes, but you have not, and you won’t see how one idea links to the next unless I show you. Keep in mind that your story is deeply embedded in you and so well known to only you that unless you tell it with great care, we will not understand it, no matter how much it dazzles you. Every man will be blind, Emily reminds us, and that’s what I see when a sobbing student in my Wednesday night class reads a story while the others look on unmoved. When this happens, it indicates that the piece is still only in the writer’s heart and not yet on the page, despite all the typing we see on the sheets before us. So be hospitable to your reader, and provide us with more than the bare-bones facts, foregone conclusions, or mere lists of emotional responses to the events of your life.
Then there’s that “gradually,” which in practical terms should remind you to open an idea and conclude that idea before moving on, laying one idea after the other slowly, carefully, and deliberately.
Emily has another quote, in poem 318, that nicely sums up how to write memoir:
I’ll tell you how the Sun rose—
A ribbon at a time—
She’s not inscrutable at all, telling you right there how to tell the truth. Tell me how the sun rose and tell it from your point of view. No matter how caught up you are in your own tale, I’m sure that we can all agree that the sun rises on everyone. Well, that’s the way it is with family events, too, when one thing happens to everyone, though no one sees it the same way. Literally universal, the sunrise is something Emily sees in ribbons.
2. Every Page Must Drive One Single Story Forward
WHAT IS THIS ABOUT?
When I was twenty-two, my mother’s mind went to battle with something and lost. It was almost as breathtaking to watch as it was impossible to prevent, and there was no stopping the losses, no quick fix lasting more than a few weeks. It began when my mother’s doctor told me that he thought she was becoming senile. I thought she was going mad. We were both wrong.
What I called madness began as forgetfulness—her keys, her phone number—and quickly lunged into severe depression and memory lapses, confusion, and a halting manner of speaking. Groping for words, for familiar phrases, she reeled like a semiblind person in the half-light of dusk. Angry, hostile, violent, incompetent, she was soon incontinent. She was fifty-one years old when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, an illness I had never heard of. This was 1979.
By 1983, I had been at the New York Times for six years, having begun my career there in one of the last classes of copyboys, those lucky drones who ran around the newsroom all day (or, in my case, all night), fetching wire copy and delivering it to the appropriate desk, getting clips from the morgue, coffee from the deli. Having worked up to the status of news clerk, I pitched the New York Times Magazine editor an idea for a piece on that then-little-known disease. He had not heard of it, nor had his deputy, nor the editor to whom I was eventually assigned.
In 1983, the magazine published the piece under the headline “Another Name for Madness.” The first first-person account of Alzheimer’s in the mainstream press, it resulted in a contract for a book, also titled Another Name for Madness, with the subtitle “The Dramatic Story of a Family’s Struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease.” That subtitle does not read “everything you ever wanted to know about the Roach family that they know to date, including but not limited to their immigration to the United States, what they paid for the houses they lived in, how tall they were then, and, woo-woo, a peek into the marriage bed of the parents.”
No, it does not.
My assignment was very specific, and I nearly lost my mind, living on someone else’s money (Houghton Mifflin’s) while learning how to toss out anything that did not illustrate “the dramatic story of a family’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.” And pretty much 99 percent of our lives to date did not.
In the course of reporting the book, I learned a lot about my mother, researching her life before her illness so that the reader might fall in love with her before the disease wrenched her away, attempting to allow the reader to value our loss and, in turn, understand our “dramatic struggle.”
At that age, the sum total of facts I knew about my mother could be pretty much tallied up on just two hands. I knew that she had been my best friend, my sailing crew, and my tennis partner, and that she was unhappily married to my father, whom I also adored. It was a list of details I pretty much shrugged off; it wasn’t about me, after all, and if you’d asked me then to recite it, it would have had all the emotional zing of a grocery list. I knew only what I needed to know: that there was a twenty-one-year age gap between my parents, that when my sister and I were in high school, our mother had gone back to college and gotten a master’s degree in education and then taught at a bilingual preschool on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when it was still just short of a war zone. A busy kid, I had been a busier teenager, and then off to college, a busy young woman, not paying much attention to the chaos of our household, but not missing that my mother frequently drank too much, and when she did, she was a nasty woman. That my sister hated her was something I had known when Margaret moved out the first chance she got and never looked back.
I had a lot to learn.
And then the phone rang.
A friend of ours called and simply said, “You should know that”—and then she said a name I knew well—“has just been killed. Call your mother.”
A dutiful young woman, I called my mother at work and waited a long time while they got her off the playground, and nowhere in that time did I think about what I was doing or that it was anything more than what it appeared: that this young man, who was the brother of my oldest friend and the middle son of our family’s close friends, had just been killed. I stood there in my bare feet with not very much on my mind.
My mother came to the phone and I told her the news.
“How long have you known?” was her reply.
“About two minutes,” I said, thinking her question odd.
“No,” she said, “how long have you known?”
“Oh,” I said, as the facts of twenty-two years recombined themselves: There was that time spent with that other family—all those football games and cocktail parties, overnight trips together, and much later, the moment at my father’s funeral when the mother of the dead young man clutched my mother and begged, “Please don’t steal my husband”; the nights our mother spent in Manhattan caring for a friend we never met; garish lingerie discovered in a drawer. And I said, “About thirty seconds,” and I hung up and called my sister.
“I think Mommy’s been having an affair.”
“How long have you known?”
The question of the day.
“How long have you known?” I asked my sister.
“Since I was nine,” said Margaret.
So, what do you do with that? I obsessed over it as I was writing the book. Could we amend the subtitle of that book to be “The dramatic story of a family’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, as evidenced in a wife and mother who lied to her family without anyone but her elder daughter finding out until her dementia made her so sloppy with the details of her life that even the young woman writing this book was forced to notice what she could have known for fourteen years”?
And then there was how to deal with her drinking. A heavy drinker and a mean drunk, she was also a fascinating, intelligent, compelling, educated, liberal-thinking, hard-voting, snap-witty, gorgeous woman. But when she was drunk, even her beauty became blurred. Alcohol is a brain insult, and since I was writing about a brain disease, I had to deal with it somehow, but the intricacies of being an adult child of an alcoholic were not even vaguely part of the tale I was contracted to write.
So the story was not about a woman who, in her early fifties, was going mad and was simultaneously discovered by her younger daughter to be having an affair, and who was a mean drunk, though I tried like hell to make it about that in the first nine, ten drafts.
Knowing the American public’s appetite for sex, I realized that I had to leave out the affair. It would have taken the story off in a direction that would detract from the portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease and how it hurtles through a family. The disappointment of having a hard-drinking mother had to be measured: My sister moved home to care for the mother she despised. That’s interesting. I did my level best to fall apart. That’s interesting, too. Losing different mothers, we had different reactions. That theme stayed in the book.
Will I ever write about her affair? I think I just did.
Her alcoholism? Why? I have nothing to say that’s unique, though I’ve seen the topic done beautifully. Read Drinking: A Love Story by the late and great Caroline Knapp. But when Caroline Knapp chose to write another memoir, about the relationship she had with her dog, called Pack of Two, she wrote about the same life—hers—with a different answer to the question, “What is this about?”
What I am doing here is the same thing you must do as you write memoir. I am taking inventory of all of my stories, acknowledging that many more exist, while looking for only those that fit this particular assignment. These other stories of my family bulge in the same ways that your stories bulge when you try to tell them. I know I’m not alone in having what we nowadays call a “complicated” family. Not a bit. I also know that my family is no more—or less—complicated than yours. So how do you write about them? By sticking to the story at hand, the one story you have decided to tell, or were assigned to tell, clipping it down on the page as you go, selecting carefully as you type, every day reminding yourself of this one single question: What is this about?
Mine was about “the dramatic story of a family’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.” What’s yours about?
When first asked this question, beginning writers nearly always say something like “It’s about the day I went to the store when I was eight and bought a . . . ,” or, “I grew up in the nineteen-fifties, a time of . . .” and right there I have to cut them off.
What I am asking for is what the tale is about. What they are telling me is how they are going to illustrate the tale. I’m asking for the wrapper, and they are giving me the lozenge. I’m asking for the frame, and they are painting me the picture. I’m asking you to do the same.
What is your story about?
Your answer to this might be something as precise as “revenge.” That’s manageable. I would argue that something as small as a blog post or a personal essay can be reduced to one word. In all forms of commercial writing—screenplays, fiction, nonfiction, and journalism—this word will appear in what is called “the pitch,” the one sentence you use to sell the story to someone else.
So pitch yourself, asking “What is this about?” Perhaps the answer will be “revenge,” “mercy,” or “betrayal.” I would also argue that only one of those three words should ever apply to the story’s intent, and that’s mercy. It would be impossible to count up just how many people over the years have come into my class hell-bent on writing a revenge tale. So here’s some hard-won advice: Never write a story because you want to exact revenge or betray someone. Your story can be about revenge, absolutely, but the story itself should not be wielded as a blunt object, a cat-o’-nine-tails, or a bludgeon. Instead, while writing about the hideous aspects of life, you should attempt to teach us something about the behavior of those involved, about your behavior, about all human behavior. Let us into your story by shedding light on our own dilemmas, fears, happiness, or wide-eyed wonder.
Pretty big requirement, isn’t it?
It should be, or else all memoir would be sniveling, and I’m really interested in someone else’s sniveling only if it somehow elevates my own. So remember, just like doctors do, “First, do no harm,” and don’t get suckered into a revenge-to-nowhere tale, where you ask forever how you can get back at someone without ever quite doing so.
Asking the question “What is it about?” will prevent that kind of useless exercise. Ask that, and while the answer might be “revenge,” you will end up writing a piece on how you tried to get some, what you learned along the way, or how you plotted and plotted and where that led you.
Writing a tale that seeks revenge, you’ll quickly see that tale as merely a list of hurts, which, when you get to the end of that list, is a list that may not interest even you anymore. Revenge as a topic is good; as an intent, it’s not. This is another benefit to writing with intent, instead of writing for exercise. Not to go all bumper sticker on you, but learn to write with intent and you might learn something about life—as you will when you learn to reduce the essence of the piece to a single totemic emotion such as “pity” or “joy,” a single experience such as “freedom” or “redemption,” or even a single phrase such as “the dramatic story of a family’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.” That may take some time. But you can do this now: You can decide on a genre—humor, perhaps—and choose how to illustrate it.
Here’s how you do it. Say aloud to yourself, “This is a piece of humor, and the illustration is that day at the proctologist,” or “This is a tragedy, and the illustration is finding those Polaroids,” or “This is about how anger withers the soul, and the illustration is my uncle Henry’s struggle for revenge.”
What will not work is the phrase “This is a tragedy and the illustration is my marriage.” This is too big. On the enormous topic of your marriage, look instead for the moment it shifted—the discovery of the Polaroids that revealed where it is your spouse would rather be; the first time your wife didn’t get choked up at someone else’s wedding; alone, trying to snap the safety clasp of your bracelet after the death of your partner—and we will see the tragedy. Capture the moment of “aha!” and you’ll find one specific story that you can drive forward.
Do you see what is happening here? You are shifting yourself—your story—into a new position of importance, where you are no longer the center of the tale. The story’s theme now occupies that place of prominence—the “what is this about” being the main attraction. Look back a few sentences and insert your details into the “this is an (x) and the illustration is (y)” algorithm, and see how the story is about something and how you, in turn, have become that story’s illustration. Understanding this essential shift is the difference between writing good memoir and boring our socks off. And the key to making this shift? Simply accepting that you are not the story. Repeat that to yourself: I am not the story. Exactly. You are the illustration. You are the picture in the frame, the lozenge in the wrapper. Get that, and when you do, you will see how your story—the illustration of the theme—gets shifted to the second phrase of this sentence and, by extension, to its proper place.
You are not writing your autobiography when you write memoir, and while entire academic conferences are devoted to howling over the semantic differences, I keep this distinction pretty simple by defining “autobiography” as a book-length depiction of one’s entire life and “memoir” as depicting a specific aspect of that life. When students arrive saying they want to write “my memoirs,” I’ll immediately attempt to redirect that to be “a memoir.” I don’t always succeed in getting them to boil down their ambitions, though I can say with complete assurance that those who do stand a far better chance of being read by someone else and having those readers enjoy the work.
Want someone to read your stuff? Use the algorithm, and when you do, notice how it makes room for readers. Pretty much (and here comes the howling), if you leave autobiography to the famous, whose highlights we already know and whose details we’d like to have filled in for us, the rest of us can find an audience by writing good memoir. So shift the story’s emphasis, and your story will touch on universal themes and—voilà!—become of interest to others. This works even if those “others” are an audience of one—for instance, your child—as in, “This is a love story, and the illustration is the moment my adopted daughter was first laid into my arms in China. I am writing it as a letter to her on her tenth birthday,” or “This is about the triumph of hard work, as illustrated by my fifty-year marriage, to be given to my wife on our anniversary.”
So ask yourself, “What is this about?” applying that question to one scene, a single event, or a singular appreciation of something in your life.
What is it about? Maybe it’s about something as lovely as your new cat and how life got so much better since she came to live with you. Let’s map that out, filling in the blanks, using that fine new feline as your illustration.
It is about fulfillment, as illustrated by my relationship with Mittens, as told in a blog post.
Feel that shift?
If you feel like you’ve been moved off center stage, you have, and you’re doing great, since writing memoir is not supposed to be the ego trip that some people make it out to be.
3. Just Because Something Happens, Doesn’t Make It Interesting
YOUR DATEBOOK JUST DOESN’T CUT IT HERE, EVEN IF IT IS LOUIS VUITTON
Don’t believe me? Tell me what you did Tuesday.
“Tuesday morning, I went to the dentist. Oh, he’s such a funny man. So funny. I mean, you should go to him. And then, all novocained up, I went shopping. And then I went to lunch and spilled down my front since my mouth was numb, but I went to this new place—it was so fabulous. It was, like, wow. You gotta go.”
That’s how my friends communicate (no, my friends are no more interesting than yours), and God bless them. Trying to get me to go to their dentist or to a new restaurant, they could tell me what kind of food is served or that the dentist is so homely that he had nothing better to do than pay attention in med school and that he went to Penn. Then I might go. But I’m not going based on this review, because I didn’t learn anything. I’m not going to sign up—and that’s what reading is: signing up to take a walk with the writer.
The tell-all indicator that a memoir writer is in real trouble is the insistent phrase “But that’s how it happened!” Writers who say this while the piece is getting a hard edit from someone else are sinking fast. How it happened is not what makes it interesting. That it happened at all—why it happened and where you go from there—is interesting. Still don’t believe me? Tell someone your dreams. Unless you’re paying them to listen or haven’t slept with them yet, chances are they’ll go to some lengths to avoid this download of your subconscious. Try telling your dreams to my husband. He actually gets up and leaves the room if someone attempts to do so. I think that’s why we’re married—so I don’t always have to be the rude one. He’ll look at this watch, nod, and actually say, “Oh, look at the time,” and leave.
When someone says that’s the way it happened, I know that the thing is DOA and that the memoir writer could not revive it—in fact, they didn’t try. Scenes from real life fade fast, losing blood and paling, and your job is to jump on the damn thing, those wild, electrified Ping-Pong paddles in hand, and jolt it back to life before it goes blue.
By putting it into a context. You have to give readers a reason for this thing to live on in their hearts and minds. Only then can we find your scene lively enough to enjoy, or learn from, or be appalled by. Only then can we laugh at our own family’s shenanigans, alter our habits in regards to climate change, or have a transcendent experience by merely reading words on a page. The lamest reason for reading something is because it happened to someone else, and the only real response to that is, “Yeah, so what?”
So those are the three rules of memoir. They ask you to tell the truth by making every page drive one story forward and have a context the reader can relate to. Now, the only question is what to write.
THERE’S THE LARGE STUFF, OF COURSE
My steepest and most efficient learning curve was when a kind friend called to ask me to be a columnist in his new magazine. Lovely, I thought, until he said the first assignment was patriotism, one of the prickliest topics of our time. And I thought and thought, and shopped online for about four days, and thought some more, until I remembered my husband’s first year as the editor of a newspaper and how much one of us changed during that time.
This was some summers ago in Troy, New York—a scrappy city with all the beauty and history you can get along the mighty Hudson River and with all the issues editors dream about: a nearly devastated economy, civil corruption, and two parades each year in which the newspaper editor gets to ride on a float. The first of these was in June.
My husband, Rex, couldn’t wait. He grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota. The drum major of his high school band, he loved a parade.
Me, I had to be out of town that day. And, anyway, the idea of riding a float made me very uncomfortable. I grew up in New York City. I don’t float, I said to myself. Don’t ask me. This is what came into focus as I struggled with the piece, and it began to occur to me that real expressions of national pride—much like personal pride—are a comfort we grow into, and perhaps patriotism is not the love-it-or-leave-it choice we were once told it was, but rather the delicatessen plan that most complex issues reveal themselves to be. Maybe now you vote and you sing the national anthem, though you didn’t do either in college. Maybe right now you won’t float, though maybe someday you will. I started to think that we pick and choose and change as we grow, even on topics as substantial as patriotism and our expressions of it.
Now, you might not know this, but Uncle Sam was a Troy man. Sam Wilson, as he was born, was a meatpacker who supplied troops in the War of 1812, and each year there’s a parade in Troy near his birthday, September 13. By the end of our first summer in Troy, my parade comfort level had buoyed to its watershed, and there I was, eyeing a float in South Troy, New York. It was a huge replica of the newspaper my husband edited. We boarded and stood over our names as the pipers, drummers, horn players, fire trucks, clowns, school bands, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and a city on the brink of bankruptcy roared into the united task of honoring Uncle Sam.
The float lurched. There was a bar to hold with one hand. The other hand was for waving.
“What’s that?” I shouted, looking down at a box between us.
“Candy,” Rex yelled. “We throw it to the crowd.”
“We throw it at them?” I shrieked.
“No, we throw it to them,” he said.
The first gentle toss was delightful. How lovely to watch handfuls of sugary mirth cascade from our perch and to hear the shrieks of children as they scrambled to gather it. How sweet. How like Evita and Imelda and Marie Antoinette all rolled into one.
“I think I’ll just wave,” I yelled.
I’ll float, but I will not toss. I’m not comfortable with it, I remember thinking; it’s just not democratic. And it was there, amid my smug reverie on equality, that the attack was launched. We were being bombarded by incoming candy, pelted with our own ammunition, thrown by a suddenly unruly crowd.
“I’m going over,” I shouted, grabbing the rail. “Let’s go get ’em.”
It wasn’t the first—or last—time that I have felt the protective hook of my husband’s strong fingers in the back of my collar.
Instead, we learned to gauge the crowd block by block—almost person by person—over the three-hour parade route. We figured people on lawn chairs drinking out of paper bags didn’t really need any more sweets, for instance. Kids got candy. And while we misjudged a few, we learned that there was no way that the parade-goers were going to behave in any set way and do any one thing—except to celebrate the holiday of a hometown hero. Each individual was bound to respond in his or her own way to the symbols of the day.
And that’s pretty much the way America started to look to me as I crafted the essay on the topic of patriotism: one nation, indivisible but comprised of individuals at varying levels of patriotism. And I was comfortable with that and handed in the piece, which ran as written.
So let’s apply what we’ve learned. What is that piece about, and how, if it’s something that happened to me, does it become universal? The secret is in that pitch—what you first asked yourself as the piece was begun, what you’d say in class when explaining what you will write, or what you’d tell an editor if offering the piece for publication: It’s an essay about patriotism—as illustrated by how one summer, after much debate, I finally climbed aboard a holiday float—to be written for a magazine.
What happens when you pitch yourself a piece on patriotism? What will be your illustration? It might sound like this: It’s a piece about patriotism, as illustrated by y, to be read on public radio on July Fourth. What’s your y? Maybe you are French and celebrate Bastille Day; perhaps you are British and Boxing Day is your annual publicly expressed day of unity. St. Patrick’s Day? Puerto Rican Commonwealth Constitution Day? Wherever you live, and however you celebrate patriotism, think about those holidays and what you have witnessed, and you will soon identify a personal experience that illustrates that big old theme.
AND THEN THERE’S WHAT’S IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD
Perhaps you want to start the other way around and do not want to begin by choosing a large, cosmic topic. You just want to start writing and see where it goes. You bet. Let’s do it that way. Maybe you’d like to introduce your children to their dead relatives. It’s easier than it sounds.
A recent student of mine wrote a fine book based on the lovely argument that all of her children take after relatives and friends they had never known, that her children’s gestures and habits, tastes and preferences, were first acquired by her, via these now long-gone loved ones, and passed along to her offspring. In her book, she successfully introduced these individuals to one another, making only enough copies for each child, giving it to them at the holidays.
So let’s pick a dead relative—say, your maternal grandmother. Now let’s choose a scene in which to illustrate who she was in the lineage of your loving family. That might be best illustrated in how she taught you to bake cupcakes when you were five years old. For this, the reader needs to see if she measured her ingredients, wiped her hands, washed those hands, or if she washed your little hands inside hers. These are the details that truly illustrate her, characterizing for the reader who she is, who she is to you, and, by extension, what the piece is about. What the reader does not need to know is her height and weight, or if her eyes were brown—unless, of course, those eyes oh-so-piquantly matched the shade of the chocolate frosting. The details we need to know reveal her care with those she loved; the others are mere descriptions and hold no weight. And as scary as it may sound, when we talk cooking and eating, we are talking love, since the entire history of how a family loves—where and how they learned to love—can be told in most kitchens.
And when I say that in class, someone always shoots up her hand.
“Yeah, well, my grandmother didn’t teach me to bake. My grandmother was a drunk.”
Did she instead teach you how to make the perfect martini? Did you grow up in a household like mine, where gin-soaked cocktail onions and olives were considered sufficient dinner vegetables for children? Did you teach yourself to bake? Does that reflect how your family either withholds emotion or expresses love? And when you went home with your college roommate for Christmas and her whole blond family moored itself around the granite island in their Greenwich, Connecticut, kitchen to ice holiday cupcakes, just how many of them did you cram into your mouth, trying to fill up that gaping hole in your heart?
Do you remember? If so, you’re good to go. So start writing, and as you set down the details, you’ll see universal themes percolate to the surface. Choose one, plug it in, and then toss out any scenes or details that do not illustrate that chosen x. That’s the beauty of that little algorithm; it will do its work for you no matter which variable you choose first. So use it.
HERE WE GO
My class runs for six weeks, once a week for three hours. On the first night I’ll ask for the topic the students will write as one essay, told in first person at fewer than 750 words. As I go around the room, invariably each subject is too big, almost everyone saying something like, “Gender. Being a sensitive man who came of age in America in the 1970s, I’m very sensitive to this idea of gender.”
Or: “My great-grandparents.”
These proposed topics must be shrunk, or that writer will not come back, having failed to wrestle onto the page a monster of unmanageable heft. We’ll use that writing algorithm to boil down these both vague and enormous ideas into moments illustrating what the writer is truly after. Maybe Gender Guy is really quite uncomfortable on the sensitive topic of our true selves and can recall the exact moment when things got slippery.
Those “aha!” moments in life are complex and interesting to others, certainly more so than a screed on the gender sensitivity of any one man.
Boiling down great-grandparents is a cinch, and I’ll ask questions until the writer sees a moment when perhaps her ancestors’ tale can be told in the dab on the nose with some cupcake icing or on the head of the inherited hatpin she gave her own daughter to defend herself on the New York City subway.
Right around the fourth or fifth person I get to, someone will inevitably offer up the topic “My rat bastard boyfriend who just left,” and I know we’re making real progress.
“What did he take when he went?” I’ll ask.
Because when people leave us, what they take tells us if they are going for good, going for show, or merely slinking off to someone else. Saltshakers are a good indication that the boyfriend has not got someone else lined up. Taking only a sandwich tells us that he’s hungry and that he has little more than tonight in mind.
We all know what he takes when he’s leaving for good, because it has happened to us, and it is in the list of what he took that the tale is told. That’s what makes the story truthful, as well as what makes it yours: What did he take of yours, what of his, and how do you define those, divide those, when at one time those lines were blurred by the smudge of love?
I’ve been teaching for thirteen years, to more than 800 students to date, in classrooms and online, and in nearly every class I’ve taught, we get some kind of list of what someone took on the way out. But people leave in different ways. Among the memorable lists I’ve read was one by a woman who turned in fifteen slender sentences, divided into three categories: “What I took,” “What I heard,” and “What I said.” The piece needed nothing more—no preamble, no introduction—for us to understand that it was a list of what she took with her, what she heard, and what she said at the bedside of her best friend as she died.
No one who reads it is unchanged by that list.
READ IT IN THE WANT ADS, SEE IT IN THE CARDS
How wild can you get? Can you tell your story in the form of a want ad? Absolutely. How about relating the demise of a marriage by listing the ingredients that once defined that union but when seen in hindsight provide a recipe for disaster? If you do, you’ll quickly learn to tell things lean, jumping ahead of every other blogger and essay writer by mastering how to tell your tale succinctly from the proverbial get-go.
Writing is a form of packing, and you always want to be on the move, so packing light should be the ethic, no matter the length of the piece. And while this is hard to grasp, keep it in mind. Pack light. We’re not embarking on a cruise for a year, or even going on a weekend trip. A blog post, a personal essay, even a full-length memoir, is not about stuffing in as much as you can; rather, it’s about illustrating something correctly. No matter how many words it is, the piece is just a day trip with someone listening in—the reader. You are not writing the history of the world, or even your world. Wanting to be heard, the temptation is to go big and throw in everything we think we might need. But it’s a mistake. And so we must unpack, casting off all nonessentials and, along the way, learning what to leave out.
This ethic is beautifully expressed in what Michelangelo reportedly said about his sculpture: that the form lived in that piece of marble, and the artist’s job was to chip down to find it. So it is with your story, from which you must doggedly chip away the entire history of everything, to only one small tale, after which there will be a whole lot more left behind than what we’ll see before us.
To illustrate this, think of memoir as laying out only a few cards from an entire deck, one at a time, each card moving forward the one story you choose to tell. Ever seen the tarot read? Writing memoir is a little like that—all you can supply yourself with is what fits in the hand. All the readers see is what you lay down. This is particularly difficult when the topic is you. Ego being what it is, when given permission to write about ourselves, we tend to spill all those things we’ve done, thoughts we’ve had, and people we’ve known, since they all seem wildly important. And they are. To us, though not necessarily to them, those other people, the readers.
Appreciating the difference between the personal tale and its value and the universal tale and its appeal is hard-won. I see this value proposition in action whenever I visit my friend Dan, whose antiquarian bookstore is among the loveliest spots on earth. Perfectly placed in the Berkshire foothills, the building was once a general store and now houses thousands of old books, most of which he acquires from strangers. People frequently bring in their beloved childhood books to sell, cradling their edition of Winnie the Pooh, Kidnapped, or Catcher in the Rye, genuinely believing that these editions are of value. And they are, Dan always says kindly—to them. But it is only the first editions or rare editions—those books that have market value—that are attractive to him, as he explains countless times each year to people whose books he must decline.
It’s the same with your own tale. Of course it’s of value to you, but how are you going to make it of value to me as well? Here’s how: Make it small. Make it rare. Make it a first for me as a reader, and I’ll remember it forever. Make it of value to someone else, even if—actually, no, especially if—those intended readers are your family. What could be more important than that? Or, as I’ve learned, more difficult?
Which is why I use the medium of the personal essay to teach memoir of any length. It is quite simply the greatest, fastest method to learn to pack light. At about 750 words, a personal essay gives the writer more than enough space to tell one tale from her point of view. But it’s hard work. Writing a personal essay takes discipline, evoking another great dictum of art: You must learn to draw before you can learn to paint. Essays require the same kind of control as drawing, and control is all about choosing what to put in or leave out. And while writers seem to want to tell their story, few understand that it must be told one illustrative scene at a time. The A.C. Moore and Michaels craft store aisles are packed with folks gluing down and sequining up their entire lives’ stories; they’d be far more satisfied writing down one life event—one graduation, wedding, or funeral—and sharing it.
So here’s some good news, perhaps the best news of all, learned while reading the powerful book The War of Art, in which Steven Pressfield reminds us that all real athletes learn to “play hurt.” By this he means that they go out and do their jobs, even when injured. The phrase actually made me weep, so profound is its application to memoirists. Reading it for the first time, I actually closed the book and held it to my chest. Here’s how it applies to us: People frequently tell me that they fully intend to write a piece of memoir just as soon as they understand the meaning of their lives. Longing to do so, these potential writers suffer needlessly, since the marvelous truth is that you can take on life in bits, at any age, under any circumstances. To write a compelling essay, you need merely to be amazed by how, when explaining intimacy to your adolescent child, you gained some quiet understanding of your own sexuality; or when it is you became comfortable with the fact that much of marriage is pantomime, where looking interested and making the gestures of engaged listening are good enough to get you both through to the next day. Wait to “understand” adolescents or marriage and you’ll never, ever write. Mere flashes are all the understanding you need bring to the writing table.
Because when you have a flash of understanding on one topic, you can write an essay. Write an essay and you tackle a scene. Master the scene and you can write seventy-five of them and have yourself a book. And here’s an unexpected dividend: Write a book about an aspect of your life and you might gain perspective, since just as in living, success in writing is all about which details you choose to emphasize.
READY OR NOT
On that first night of class, as the students relate vivid scenes they want to write—the very ones we’ll prune down to a writable size—my hope is that everyone begins not only to recognize which stories might work, but also which are not yet ready for mining.
At some point in the class, I’ll tell the students about a male architect I barely knew when he married a friend of mine. For their wedding, he not only designed but also sewed his wife’s crushed white velvet, floor-length, cut-on-the-bias wedding dress and made her a white pillbox hat to match.
Consider that scene for a moment: another bride, another groom, another musty old church filled with people in their thirties marveling at this Olympiad of sewing, the guests shooting wide-eyed looks at one another. Here comes the bride. And that groom in the designer tux and slender Italian eyeglasses—is he straight or what? Great scene, but that illustration—the crushed velvet wedding dress, the tall groom, whispers rocketing around the stone church—needs a context, a wrapper, to evolve beyond being a toast at the couple’s twentieth anniversary.
What is the wedding story about? I have no idea, though in the years since I delighted in witnessing it (and their happy marriage), I have picked it up a thousand times and had a look, each time putting it away again. I couldn’t pitch it because I did not know what it’s about; specifically, I did not know what it illustrated. Gorgeous, it’s been patiently waiting for me to find a place where it makes sense, in context. I think I just did.
I’ve got a million of them, thank God. And so do you.
Excerpted from The Memoir Project by Roach Smith, Marion Copyright © 2011 by Roach Smith, Marion. Excerpted by permission.
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