This is a handout I gave to my new beginning memoir class at The Grotto. It’s just me feeling my way through, as usual. If you think this list is total bullshit, let me know. You can also let me know if something on it seems accurate. I’m always interested in becoming a better teacher of what is kind of a delicate subject.
Everything I Currently Know About Writing Memoir
by your friendly workshop facilitator, Heather Donahue
1. Start from the body.
My body and your body have had some similar experiences–some of our most basic, potent ones. This is a vivid palette to paint with. It unifies.
2. When in doubt, go back to the body.
A good memoir tracks the evolution of a consciousness. The body is the vehicle of consciousness. The skin is a permeable membrane. The senses mostly filter, theyʼre the doors we open or close, voluntarily and involuntarily. Consider the multiple conversations at a party that we don’t hear because our ears are built to limit our hearing to that on which we direct our attention. Our attention tracks how our consciousness expands and contracts in different situations. Well-chosen sensory details share this shifting with the reader. In this shifting is the story.
3. Anecdotes, like adverbs, are not your friend.
Well, maybe like facebook friends. Nice enough, but you really don’t have time for them. You’re busy with touchable spines.
Events and situations that don’t illuminate the evolution of our consciousness/insight as it relates to the story we are telling, qualify as anecdotes. Anecdotes donʼt belong in a good memoir. As anecdotes are to story, so adverbs are to sentences. They bring the flaccid. Keep everything tight and strong. Keep flaccid at bay. Wait, what was I talking about?
4. The selection of details reveals the consciousness of the narrator.
If you’re about to kiss someone and the crack in the wall behind their head, or the hairs on their face suddenly take on monumental significance–that says a lot. Ideally, something the narrator notices outside the body will be accompanied by something inside the body and these details will amplify each other, allowing the reader to co-experience something awesome.
5. In the beginning, expect to write about 50 pages per one shareable page.
I say this not to defeat you, but to free you up to just get on it and write as poorly and as dangerously and as embarrassingly as you will. Go for shame, go for grief, go for terror, go for bliss, go for humor, go for insight. Go for all of these things and more and miss them often. Miss them most of the time. Miss them for about 49 pages. Fail. There is no substitute for it. You’ll tune your sensor to your emotional hot spots/pink bits and this is probably where your story is. You will probably write around your story for awhile. I find that stories sometimes pop out of the negative space, squatting in what you’re not writing. This negative space can (and should) remain in your stories. But you should be aware of it. And it should vibrate. Like Ikebana.
6. The narrator and the author are two separate entities.
The narrator can lack insight, not realize what is really going on in a scene, but the author needs to know why that scene is there and what it needs to do. The narrator is a product of the author, a persona crafted to tell the story. (See also: Vivian Gornick “The Situation and the Story”)
7. You have time to write.
Try the Pomodoro technique. It helps get my ass in the chair and keep it there for at least 25 minutes. Try Freedom, a simple application that blocks email and internet. Without distraction, it’s amazing what 25 minutes can do. You can get out some kind of first draft of a scene in that time, Iʼm sure of it. You can look at the street view of the neighborhood youʼre writing about when you revise. Later. Donʼt sacrifice momentum for fact checking in first drafts. Stay in the rooms. Both the one youʼre writing in and the one your story is happening in. Unless your story is set outside. Then you should stay in the room, and outside.
8. Get into a scene as late as you can, and get out as early as you can.
This tip is blatantly stolen from Syd Field. He writes screenwriting books that are really helpful with memoirs if you are someone who tends toward the nebulous and rambly. This particular tip can help you clarify the purpose of a scene within your story. It’s also helpful for pacing.
9. Be sparing with essayistic reflection.
In a memoir, I’d rather be alongside the narrator as s/he earns some insight. There are many lovely ways to say “I have become wise” but I find that they are rarely as interesting as allowing the reader to co-experience the “becoming” with you via scene. I’m of the opinion that you have write several scenes to earn your moments of reflection. Possibly this is just me. Feel free to fight me on this.
10. “Generality is the enemy of all art” –Stanislavsky
Be specific. You might think that the flavor and color of the Kool Aid powder that you shouldn’t have been eating with the neighbor boy in the back seat of his Dad’s blue Nissan doesn’t matter, but it does. Especially if it’s cherry. What might matter even more is how it stuck to your sweaty fingers and thighs because it was Independence Day and everybody else was watching fireworks and how those same sticky thighs got poked by and stuck to the torn white vinyl until you moved them closer to the boy who stayed just where he was.
Specific details, particularly those of the body, plunge the reader into the scene so that she can co-experience it. Our bodies have a shared vocabulary that words can almost magically evoke. I find it magical, at least. A bunch of letters can make your heart pound. Nice.
11. When in doubt, be more specific.
If there are sentences in your memoir that could be in anybody else’s memoir, be suspicious. If there are sentences in your memoir that could be in everybody else’s memoir, cut them.
12. Judicious use of metaphor is your friend.
Metaphor helps dissolve and reassemble things, notions, in unexpected ways. The way you use this device will inform/develop your voice. See also: the effects of sentence length, prosody, the difference between the way words from the punchy Anglo-Saxon branch of the English family tree land versus words from the more formal Latinate side. Split things, let them dangle and run on. Then revise. (See also: #16)
13. Imitation can be a useful practice.
Imitate writers whose voices you love. Imitate writers whose voices sound absolutely nothing like yours and see how these change a scene’s effectiveness. Notice how this imitation changes your relationship to a scene.
14. Vision is the least interesting sense.
In terms of crafting richer prose, please don’t forget about tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and any sixth sense stuff you’d like to throw in.
15. Memoir is the very subjective rendering of objectively occurring events.
Iʼm paraphrasing this from somewhere on The Rumpus and can’t find who wrote it. I agree. I think you can composite events and characters to serve the story. Some people disagree with this.
16. Scenes are the cells of a story. Verbs are the mitochondria.
Scenes, like cells, contain a world in and of themselves. Their specific accumulation makes bigger wholes. Verbs are engines, the powerhouses of your prose, much like how mitochondria function in a cell. Keep them strong (and specific).
17. Bulimia is bad for people, good for stories.
Your draft will sometimes be bloated. At this point, strip it down to the barest bones. Keep only what excites you. Then build it back up to make sense. Then blow some narration into scene and see what you come up with. Then purge again. Repeat this until your story is lean and agile.
18. It’s not about you. You’re more like a story filtering system.
If you want to write a memoir, you will excavate your shit. It will be uncomfortable and sometime you won’t want to do it. Maybe you’ll write a lot of impressionistic stuff that’s completely disembodied instead of getting down and dirty and mining the shit for nuggets. Nuggets have value. They can be shared, exchanged. Non-nugget material is for your pals. They care about you, the reader doesn’t. The reader wants to know how youʼre answering the question of how to live. And it should be urgently. You have to go so far, so specifically, and so courageously into you that you dissolve and only the story is left. This might feel self-indulgent at first. If so, go back to the body and be specific with sensory details until what you write breaks your heart, or at the very least, makes you cringe and think your loved ones wonʼt speak to you if they read it. You’ve probably hit a story vein. Keep digging. Get out of your own way. Run on the assumption that there are Dog Star Alien Gods who need to get this story out and you are really pissing them off by being such a clumsy egoic vehicle. You have a responsibility to get out of your own way. For everybody’s benefit, including your own.
19. There can be no douche greater than “I”
Which is to say that your narrator should be the most flawed character in the story unless your narrator is a child. Don’t go tediously easy on a child narrator though, kids do some effed up stuff.
20. Sometimes it helps to work from the insight out.
Often the insight that you have gained (or tried and failed to gain) is at the heart of your story. When you know this, itʼs more straighforward to choose the events/situations that best illustrate that insight. If you are still trying to sort it, all the better. Sort it to its mythic bedrock. Story is conflict! Yay! Now all that conflict doesn’t have to go to waste!
21. Yes, you are probably drinking too much.
22. Oh, and if you start a sentence with “I feel…” or “I felt…” you should probably revise it.
Or revise the whole scene it’s a part of, to allow the reader to experience that feeling with your narrator. This does not apply to dialogue.