Cindy Zelman of Boston, Massachusetts, has written a fabulous article about writing memoir. It’s so great I wanted to share it with all of you. Today’s guest post is Part 1, with Part 2 to follow next Monday, March 11. If you enjoy this article (which I am sure you will) please be sure to post a comment and show some appreciation to Cindy.
“10 Million Links to Help Make Your Memoir Stand Out! (Part 1)”
Or, some simple advice for those new to memoir writing.
If you Google the phrase, How to make your memoir stand out, you will receive 3+ million hits within a few seconds. Sometimes that phrase yields up to 10 million hits. Either way, that’s a lot of information. Who am I to give you advice with such a crowd of experts waiting for you to click on a link or 3 million? As a blogger and a writer whose focus is creative nonfiction, both essays and memoir, I can offer you some down home suggestions — nothing proven or promised, but helpful ideas I’ve picked up along the way from other writers, editors, and publishers.
I would begin by telling you not to listen to people who say you must lead an exciting life to write a publishable memoir. BS, people, BS! Yeah, sure, it helps to be Cheryl Strayed and have hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Washington State all alone. To add to the spice of her memoir, Strayed had never been a hiker and decided to hike 1,000+ miles to find inner peace after the death of her mother and a divorce from her spouse. This doesn’t sound like your life? You don’t find yourself praying you don’t run out of water lost up in a mountain somewhere? You’re not a beautiful blonde adventurer who would look good on Oprah?
Just because your life is a little quieter than Chery Strayed’s, that doesn’t mean you can’t write a great memoir. Even if the most exciting thing you do is stay home and crochet afghans, you can write a compelling memoir. It’s all in how you tell the story.
Did I just say “story?”
Suggestion Number 1: Tell a story. Just as a novelist tells a story in fiction, a memoirist should always keep story in mind when telling her tale. Of course, one distinction between fiction and memoir is that your story needs to be true. By true, I don’t mean absolutely, 100% factual, because a memoir is not a news article. I’m not interested in all the arguments about objective truth, since personally, I do not believe it exists.
If you are to write credible memoir, stay as close to memory as possible. Finding the emotional truth in your story is essential. The emotional truth is what readers want in memoir – not the chronological facts of your life. A this happened and then that happened approach is autobiography, not memoir. You reach deeper in memoir to provide a story arc, to feel and see and interpret the aspect(s) of your life and the world which you are writing about.
For example, you might not remember the color of your father’s sweater when he took you to the ball game, right before he left you and your mom forever, but you remember how it felt when he took you to that game. What would the color of the sweater need be, to evoke the emotional truth of being with your Dad for the last time? Make his sweater that color, the color of how it felt. It’s okay toimagine, just don’t lie about having had a father who took you to the ball game and then left home, leaving you and your mom to fend for yourselves. That part needs to be true. The part about the sweater color can be imagined as a method for showing the emotional truth. If it makes you uncomfortable to make up the color, you can alert your readers that you are imagining. “I think his sweater was blue,” or “I imagine his sweater to be blue,” are ways to tip off the reader that you are unsure. Readers are okay with that.
If research and interviews help to jog your memory and go deeper into the story, then go for it. I recently had an experience where someone I never wanted to hear from again found a short memoir published by an online journal. She contacted me and pushed back about some of the situations I described. I must give her credit that our discussions led to a better and deeper story. People who are familiar with the story you want to tell can help to jog your memory, but remember, it’s your story to write, not theirs.
So, tell us a story.
Suggestion Number 2: Write well. It may sound self-evident but there are people who think if they throw something down on paper about their lives, it’s worthy of readers. If you plan to write about how knitting afghans for the last 30 years has made you the spiritual person you are today, starting when you were a 15-year old feeling alone and friendless and borderline suicidal, and ending your story in middle-age, where the afghans are what saved your mortal soul and now define your very essence –- write that story well. It’s an awesome story: surviving your demons through crocheting is your own Pacific Crest Trail hike. However, your sentence structure, diction, and grammar need to be clear, concise, and correct. Make sure there are no spelling errors. (I am saying all this to myself, by the way.)
Cindy Zelman is a creative nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in numerous journals including Feminist Studies, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, The Whistling Fire, and Cobalt Review. She is finishing a full-length memoir about how panic disorder and a dysfunctional childhood have affected her romantic relationships. You can read some of her work on her blog, The Early Draft, found here.