Writing memoir is a different animal than writing fiction. For one thing, you can make stuff up when you’re writing fiction. If you don’t like what someone says, change it. If you don’t like how someone looks, change it. Think the scene would play out better in a field rather than a supermarket? Change it.
But writing memoir is scary, and difficult, and forces you to take a good hard look at the things you’ve done and even more importantly, why you did them. You can’t make stuff up, you can’t change what someone said, and you can’t change what you said or did just to make the story better or less painful. If it happened in the middle of the supermarket, that’s where it stays. Now, part of that is a good thing. The emotions and words in a memoir are true and honest, and that makes them even more painful and filled with raw emotion. Reading a memoir is like looking into someone’s ripped-open chest and seeing what has been hidden up until that point.
So, it stands to reason that if you are writing memoir, you are essentially opening your own chest and letting everyone have a peek. This can be horrifying, but it’s a risk you must take in order to write a successful memoir. Look at Cheryl Strayed with Wild, or Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, and even David Sedaris, who’s books are humerous but also open the window to tragic events and personal pain in his life. The common denominator among the successful memoirs is the bloody, chest-baring peek into those dark places others haven’t been.
We’ve all read a memoir that was bland, dry and boring. Why? In most cases, the writer created a superficial book without any insight into their lives, their past, or their emotions. We feel cheated after reading it, realizing that we would have gotten just as much insight into their lives (or maybe even more) if we had met them at a cocktail party and chatted near a dusty potted fern.
And this is where I am in my writing process right now. I am taking the scalpel to my chest and slicing it open each time I write. I am opening my feelings, my emotions, my mistakes, and inviting people to watch it happen all over again. Who the Hell does that on purpose?
But there are two things that have kept this going for me and made it ok to continue. The first is the wonderful critique group that was established when I started the Arcadia Memoir Writers last year. This is a safe place for people to open up and share. In fact, many members of the group have compared it to group therapy at times and I have to agree. When you have a safe place to share events in your life, and take critique about it and your writing, you know you have found something special. It’s the first step in sending your work out to agents, publishers, and even magazines, for publication.
The second thing that has helped immensely is finding Creative Nonfiction Magazine. Lee Gutkind, who is the founder of the magazine and the author of You Can’t Make this Stuff Up, was speaking at Changing Hands Bookstore in town. He was fantastic and inspiring for the mere fact that writing memoir/creative nonficton is his life. His book is straight-forward and gives real examples of how to write memoir. He made it sound like something everyone should and could do, and this is something he has been doing for years. Yes, I’ll admit I was a bit intimidated since he’s been published numerous times. Someone who has been published acquires some kind of aura about them, don’t they? It’s a special scent or light that surrounds them. Well, at least to those of us who aspire to publication. I can’t tell you about the other end, but eventually I will. I found a group of people afterward (along with a couple of friends from the writing group) and we chatted about life and even shared moments in our lives with each other. This made it even more special and gave me the boost I needed.
So, here I am with my scalpel in hand (which looks mysteriously like a beat-up Macbook) making another slice into my soul. I have my extensive library of how-to books beside me, as well as fantastic memoirs to peruse when I need a break. I’ll have a list of these in a future blog as soon as I have a chance to list them all.
My advice is to find a group of people who can support you in what you do, whatever that is. Find someone who can inspire you and make you want to pursue your dream. These will keep you afloat in the worst storms of self-doubt.