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Posts Tagged how to write memoir
How do we write about ourselves? How do we write a memoir that will have value for others? How do we find the necessary level of truth, empathy and self-examination? How reliably are we remembering and does that even matter? What about the other people who are part of our story – how do we approach writing about them?
For me, the very best memoirs perform a conjuring trick with your mind. Even if the author is nothing like you, they somehow seem to be writing experiences you’ve also had or recognise.
Today I’m thrilled to be talking to such a writer – Peter Selgin, whose memoir The Inventors was one of my favourite books of last year (though it was actually published in 2016, but who cares about that?) Peter is a literary powerhouse – novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor and associate professor of English at Georgia College & State University. He’s also an artist, and the gorgeous pictures in this post are by him. (Find more of his art here.)
Roz Your memoir The Inventors is mainly written in second person, with your older self-addressing your younger self. I found this moving and effective; it allowed you to express complex emotions about your illusions and motivations, to bring your younger self alive in all his truth and complexity, while commenting from your perspective now. This is one of the challenges we face with memoir: how to be wiser than we were but also kind to our follies. I think your style choice balances them beautifully. How did you arrive at it? Was it something you’d seen in another book or did it happen for you spontaneously?
Peter My decision to write The Inventors in second person was mostly logical. At some point it became obvious to me that the younger version of myself whose story I was trying to tell, this thirteen-year-old boy, was in many ways a different creature than the fifty-something man I had become. I realized that I couldn’t inhabit that younger self fully or authentically; I couldn’t be him again. But I still wanted to tell his story. So instead of telling a story about him, as him, I told it to him. This gave me the sense of distance and perspective that every memoirist needs.
I think the hardest thing—or one of the hardest things—about writing memoir is how to be objective, honest, and fair, while avoiding all forms of sentimentality, of unearned emotion. I was intent on not romanticizing or glorifying my own past in any way. I didn’t want my younger self to come across as in any way heroic. But I was equally determined not to portray him as a victim (I’m no great fan of victim memoirs). The second person enforces acts as a sort of prophylactic against sentimentality. “You did this; you did that.” It has—or should have—the objective authority of an instruction manual or a cake recipe.
In the past few years the second person has become very trendy, which makes me almost wish I hadn’t used it, but it really was necessary for this book. And I think with second person that’s the key: is it necessary? if not, don’t use it.
When your agent disagrees
Roz I saw you remark in a blogpost that your agent advised against second person because it wouldn’t be as commercially appealing. We tread a fine line with our professional advisers, don’t we? Can you talk about handling advice that may be right in some ways, but wrong for your artistic direction? Your agent suggested a major change. How did you resist and still remain on good terms?
Peter My agent Christopher Rhodes was concerned that the second person would put off editors (this was before it became as trendy as it is now). At one point I rewrote the entire manuscript in the first person, but felt that it lost something crucial in the process. It no longer had that ruthlessly objective tone that had made it not only possible to write, but fun to write. And so I switched it back into second person again.
Ultimately, Christopher arrived at a brilliant solution: break up the second-person voice with another voice, with short intervals or inter-chapters in the first person. I used those intervals as opportunities to comment on the process of writing my own memoir and on memoir in general, little glimpses into the author’s process or notebook. In fact, I raided a few notebooks of mine for reflections to include in them. I’ve long been attracted to the sort of writing where the author’s inner process is exposed to the reader, the way the plumbing, ducts, and other normally hidden features of architecture are externalized at the Centre Pompidou.
Writing about real people
Roz Inevitably when we write memoirs, we involve other people. Many of them haven’t necessarily consented to become part of a book. Even if they do consent, they might not appreciate how we will use the material about them.
An example from my fiction – I have friends who jovially say ‘I’d love a part in your book’. They imagine a cameo where they’re doing something jolly and typical of them, like a special guest in a movie. They think it’s all surface. Instead we might write complex responses to our time with them, responses they might be entirely unaware we had. We cast them as part of our struggle to deal with life. We must write them this way in order to be truthful for the reader, but we also are aware it might create surprising and personal questions for the real people in our orbit. How did you handle this generally?
Peter On one hand, we should always respect the feelings of other people and try not to hurt people or use the medium of memoir irresponsibly or vindictively. But then we also have a responsibility toward telling the truth, or anyway trying to be as truthful and honest as possible. I’m lucky to have been born into a family that tolerates artistic needs and temperaments. While my egocentric father was more-or-less oblivious, my mother has always been supportive of my work as an artist, even when it’s come at her expense. Which isn’t to say that nothing I’ve ever written has given her offense. She was particularly offended by a passage in The Inventors in which I describe the family home as having gone somewhat to seed in the wake of my father’s death (of all the things that could have offended my mother about The Inventors, I never imagined it would be that passage).
The thing is, you can’t predict other people’s responses. It’s probably best not to try. Try to be as fair and objective as possible. Write to understand rather than out of anger, anguish, or self-pity; and never use the medium as an instrument of revenge, judgment, condemnation. The lens of self-righteous indignation is a poor instrument, I think, through which to view one’s life—let alone the world—clearly.
Roz In your book, there are two interesting ways you acknowledge this conundrum. You describe one of the main characters by just a label, ‘the teacher’. And at the end, you invite your brother George to write an afterword and correct anything he likes. He says that several details are wildly inaccurate from his point of view – even the kind of pen he had. This creates a sense of unreliability, but somehow does not undermine the book at all. Perhaps it also resonates neatly with your title, the men who invent themselves. Perhaps it also shows the complexity of reader belief, that what matters to them is inner honesty.
Peter As I see it, the memoirist’s job isn’t to tell “the truth,” which isn’t always possible. In fact it’s never possible at all, since “the truth” is a moving target that alters with the slightest shift in perspective or time. The memoirist’s job is to remember. And memory is entirely constructed.
Nor is it a stable construct. It keeps amending and refining itself, until finally what we remember isn’t “the truth” or even our own experience, but a story, a fiction based on experience, that we’ve told ourselves over and over again. With each telling the story acquires its own mythic reality independent of the facts, whatever those may have been.
Memory and truth are very different things. When students ask me, “How can I write about X if I don’t remember X?” I remind them that “to remember” is a verb, that there is no such thing as a memory that exists on a shelf in a storage room somewhere in our brains. Memories are like wind; they exist through the process of remembering. Whatever the act of remembering evokes, though it may not be “the truth,” still, it will do for memoir.
Roz You wrote two memoirs and a book of memoir essays. Why did they naturally split into three books?
Peter I’ve actually published only one memoir and one “memoir in essays.” A third memoir exists. Titled Painting Stories: a Life in Words and Pictures, that focuses on my love affair with those two things, how for many years they were at odds with each other, and how I finally succeeded in reconciling them. It has yet to find a publisher, in part because it needs to be produced in full colour, which is expensive. But everything we write is autobiographical, isn’t it — or rather everything we write is a blend of memory and imagination. But while fiction is driven mainly by the imagination, memoir has memory humming under its hood. It’s a matter of priorities.
The eclectic writer
Roz You have an eclectic mix of output. First of all, you’re an artist and graphic designer as well as writer. But within books you’re also quite diverse. You have fiction short and long, memoirs and essays, three craft books, five books for children. This is, of course, what a naturally curious, creatively inclined, expressive person does. But commercial folks would say that’s too diffuse. I have a good friend who writes award-winning non-fiction and has also written a novel that is terrifically good, but his agent doesn’t want him to enter that market and won’t attempt to sell it. Have you experienced this kind of obstacle?
Peter The demands of the marketplace are hostile to versatility. If an artist has a successful “product,” the market demands that they produce more of the same. For me that’s always been a problem, since I hate to repeat myself. This was driven home to me many years ago, soon after I published my first book, a children’s book. The book having done well, my editor at Simon & Schuster was eager to see more from me. I met with him several times. At each of those meetings I must have shown him half a dozen ideas I had for more children’s books, each of which was of a completely different order than the one we’d published, none of which appealed to him. It became obvious that what he wanted more of the same. But I just couldn’t get excited by that. I envy artists who, having found a successful style or method, are able to repeat it over and over again with minor variations. That’s a formula for commercial success. But I’m afraid I just don’t have it in me.
Roz Neither do I.
When we teach writing…
Roz New question. You teach a university graduate program in creative writing. What do you think we teach when we teach writers?
Peter Every teacher is different, of course. My focus has always been on craft, and especially on what makes for good storytelling. What information does the reader need, when do they need it, and how should it best be delivered?
Roz That is brilliant. I always think good writing knows exactly how it’s handling the reader. What they’re directing the reader to notice. And to feel.
Peter Of course there’s no single right answer. But those are the kinds of issues I look at when analysing and diagnosing a piece of writing. I see myself as something of a clinician. Of course, when it comes to prescribing, the first question should always be, “What is it that this author has set out to do? How can I help them to write the book that they seem to want to write?” I reject the often-heard accusation that creative writing teachers necessarily mould their students into their own image. Of course it may be true in some cases. But in my experience, the shape of the “mould” is determined by our students’ drafts, by the vision they present me with.
Roz I spotted on Facebook recently that you’ve been revising a novel after feedback from agents and publishers. What kinds of things did you re-examine?
Peter The novel, titled Duplicity, is nominally about twins—but the way Moby Dick is about the whaling industry. It’s really about dualities, opposites, contradictions, and paradoxes of all sorts, including a phenomenon of physics known as “quantum entanglement,” by which a single entity may exist in more than one place at a time. Having had it rejected by nearly every publisher in the country, large and small, I decided to revise it—not heavily, but to get rid of as many of what I call “speed bumps” in the narrative road —words, sentences, paragraphs, in one or two cases whole passages that slowed things down unnecessarily. I like the analogy of a story or narrative as a guided tour with a destination, but also with detours and side trips to interesting sights along the way. Some things are worth pulling over for; others less so. In revising I got rid of a few side trips.
Roz Give me some amazing final words!
Peter The best advice I’ve heard given to a writer is what the titular character tells (actually writes in a note) to Buddy, his fledgling author younger brother in J.D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction. He has Buddy ask himself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world would he most want to read if he had his heart’s choice.” Seymour then tells his brother to “sit down shamelessly and write the thing [him]self.”
And on that note, of things we’re writing ourselves, here’s my latest news
first person narration, first person narrator, how to write memoir, interview, Jane Friedman, multiple genres, Peter Selgin, second person narration, second person narrator, The Inventors, versatile authors, writing life, writing memoir, Your First Page
If you’ve been following me on Facebook or on my newsletter you’ll have seen I’m taking a creative interlude to work on a collection of travel memoir pieces. It’s a new kind of book for me and it’s raising some interesting challenges, particularly as I’m used to the freedoms of fiction.
So I thought I’d gather together a few other fictioneers who’ve crossed into memoir to discuss the differences.
Let’s meet our novelists-turned-memoirists.
Jean Gill @writerjeangill has published in a wide variety of genres – historical fiction, fiction in translation, teen novels and a goat cheese cookbook. Her memoir, How Blue Is My Valley, is an as-it-happens account of her first year living in Provence.
Joni Rodgers, who you might recognise from The Undercover Soundtrack and this post about ghostwriters and their soul projects, had two novels published by small literary publishers, and then a big bestseller with her cancer memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair, which kicked off a career as a ghostwriter of celebrity memoirs. She has continued to write fiction, and her second memoir is an account of her hybrid publishing adventures: First You Write: The Worst Way to Become an Almost Famous Author and the Best Advice I Got While Doing It.
Jessica Bell @msbessiebell will also be familiar from The Undercover Soundtrack. She’s a musician, writing coach, graphic designer and publisher, has released seven books of fiction and verse, and is about to release her memoir Dear Reflection: I Never Meant To Be A Rebel, about her dysfunctional childhood, teen years and music career.
The most obvious difference between novels and memoir is, of course, real events. And this creates an artistic problem. Real life is messy; it lacks the structures that do much of a novel’s work. Personally I’m enjoying it; the need to stay within boundaries is a challenge. I asked my authors about the main challenges they faced with their material.
Joni: ‘The least interesting thing in a cancer memoir is the cancer. I had to distil the complex medical aspects of the story in a way that did justice to my experience while maintaining a compelling pace for the reader. I won’t even pretend I did that on autopilot. I had a terrific editor with an unsparing eye.’
Jean faced an additional challenge with her book because she was writing without a predetermined shape. It was a day-to-day diary of events as they unfolded. ‘Authors with any sense write memoirs looking back, so they can find patterns and resolutions. Instead, I was writing the book ‘live’ as workmen destroyed the house around me and I had no idea what was going to happen next. I haven’t kept a diary since the ones I gave up as a teenager with cryptic codewords.’
Jean says her approach paid off, though. ‘Fans have told me this is part of the book’s charm. The immediacy of all those first impressions, of being in love with Provence, is not filtered by artistic shaping. Moving to another country is always about what you take with you: physically, mentally and emotionally. I came to understand that from writing my memoir.’
How we come across
One of the hardest things to judge with such a personal book is how we’re coming across. As the writer, we know everything and the reader knows nothing, and I know I’m going to be relying on beta readers more heavily than usual. Joni and Jessica say they couldn’t have done it without editorial support.
Joni: ‘Beta readers and a good editor are crucial. I’ve had the good fortune to be edited and mentored by amazing professionals at Big Five publishers and prestigious small presses, so maybe I’m spoiled, but candidly, I was disappointed in the editor I hired to do First You Write. Even more disappointed in the copy editor. Fortunately, my beta readers were top drawer. The Midwives, my critique group at the time, was an amazing posse of well-read, widely published authors, including Barbara Taylor Sissel and Colleen Thompson. That crit group was one of the best things that ever happened to me professionally and personally.’
Jessica says she also could not have done without a professional editor. She began by writing her book as vignettes, then attempted to fill the gaps. But I knew deep down that they were not satisfactory. When I invested in a professional editor, I discovered that many details were lacking. Because I knew my life so well, I didn’t have the same need, or instinct, to explore every fine detail like I do when writing fiction. When writing fiction, I am completely immersed in the details, and also creating those details for myself. When writing memoir, those details already exist. It’s so easy to not realize they aren’t apparent to your reader. The effort it took to dig them out was my biggest hurdle. I felt like I was constantly repeating myself, when in fact, I wasn’t at all. It’s really interesting how unreliable we are as writers of our own lives. I now know that I will still need that editor with my second, third, and fourth memoir.’
(Modest shuffling of feet: Jessica’s first editor was me. To slip into that role for a moment, I’ve worked on many memoirs and each time it’s a special privilege to be invited to help shape such personal material. I also happen to know that Jessica’s editor for the second version was Dan Holloway, so – a shout-out to him.)
Jean had an unexpected source of feedback when her memoir was being made into an audiobook: ‘If you want to know how you come across, nothing beats having to listen to the narration and having to explain to a top voice actor just how funny you thought that sentence was. Even now, the thought makes me hot with embarrassment.’
Inevitably some people in our memoir will be recognisable. What do we do about that?
Jean says: ‘I changed the names of all but immediate family and I let my sisters read it beforehand, so they could raise any objections. They didn’t.’
I’ve also been contacting people who are recognisable and letting them read the relevant excerpts. And Jean brings up another principle that I’m following: ‘I considered every word I wrote from the viewpoint of that person reading about themselves. Ask me again in a year’s time as the book is being translated into French, so all the villagers will be able to read it. My hairdresser has promised to let me know if we need to sell up and leave the village.’
Jessica says she asked permission from family and close friends to reveal their true identities. And that was nerve-wracking – I remember having a conversation with her behind the scenes on Facebook as she gathered the courage to show the manuscript to her mother.
‘I’m very lucky they gave permission,’ she says. ‘For those I don’t have contact with (or don’t wish to contact) I’ve changed physical attributes, names, and certain characteristics. Sometimes three people have been merged into one character. People who know me and the people in my memoir will most likely be able to work out who is who; I don’t think there is any way to avoid this. The only thing we can do is change our characters enough so that they can’t be recognised by random readers.’
Joni had to write about her family in close detail during traumatic events, especially her husband, Gary. I asked whether that was awkward. ‘I did struggle with this invasion of Gary’s privacy. He was supportive in a very unexpected way: he didn’t read the book. He said he wanted me to tell the story I needed to tell without feeling like he was looking over my shoulder. To this day, he hasn’t read it. The one concession he asked was that I decline an option on film rights, even though we desperately needed the money. Chemo left us bankrupt. Thanks, American healthcare system! When the film option came up, our children were still small, and I wasn’t in remission. Gary and I agreed that if I died, a movie could be confusing and unhealthy for our kids in later years.’
With that in mind, I think we need a brief feelgood interlude. Here’s a very soppy picture of Joni and Gary.
The difficult memories
Jessica had to steel herself to revisit some of the events in her book and was tempted to leave them out. ‘I had a really hard time writing about them. But my editor convinced me to bite the bullet.’ (Just call me Rozweiler.)
Joni also had to grapple with difficult memories. ‘My desire to help other women with cancer far outweighed any awkwardness. Cancer destroyed me physically, emotionally, spiritually, sexually, and financially, and while I was in that crucible, I craved honest conversation about taboo topics like money and sex. To leave out the awkward and even humiliating moments in that story would have been a disservice to readers with cancer, and it would have felt dishonest to me.’
What to leave out?
And not everything belongs in your memoir. Joni says: If life is a sprawling country garden, a memoir is a cut flower arrangement. Choices have to be made, and some are difficult. Here again, I have to sing the praises of my editor, the late, great Marjorie Braman at HarperCollins. Throughout the process, Marjorie focused a single beam of light—the book’s reason for being—on every anecdote, character, sentence, syllable. Much of what I know and practise as an editor now, I learned from Marjorie as we worked through Bald in the Land of Big Hair and my subsequent novel, The Secret Sisters. She never told me what to do, but she always asked the right questions.’
That pruning process might not be straightforward. Jean says that at the time of writing, one of her children was very depressed, and she found her own feelings of helplessness overwhelming. ‘This memoir wasn’t about trauma or therapy so the details of my private life were irrelevant. But I felt silly writing happy little thoughts without acknowledging that pain. This is how I dealt with it. I acknowledged it for the only person who mattered to understand:
‘Happiness is an utterly selfish emotion. How can you be happy when someone close to you, isn’t? How can you be happy in the face of war, starvation, poverty… And yet. How does your misery change others’ lives for the better? Who is helped by your depression? Isn’t it from some kind of secure self that you can reach out a helping hand?’
We are made of many memoirs
But Jessica says each of us might have many memoirs in us. ‘Just because something has happened in your life, that doesn’t mean it has a place in the memoir. For example, to the disappointment of those who have gotten to know me online, this memoir doesn’t talk much about my writing career. That’s an entirely different story, unrelated to my child- and teen-hood, and love life and music. And then there’s my humorous and devastating story of running a café-bar in Ithaca, Greece. I realised these didn’t belong in Dear Reflection. They are not related to my psychological struggle. They are related to the side of my personality that is confident and ambitious. And they need their own book.’
So let’s sum up. Here’s the gathered wisdom on writing a memoir:
- Beta readers and a good editor are crucial for helping us understand how we come across.
- Seek permission from real people who will be recognisable, and if possible let them read the relevant sections. Change the details of others so they can’t be identified. Consider every word you write about another person as though they were reading it.
- If your memoir is about difficult experiences, dig deep and remember that these details are part of the honest journey.
- Not every experience will fit in one memoir. As with fiction, check that everything serves the story you’re telling. If it doesn’t, consider keeping it for another book.
Thank you to my panel. Here’s where you find them
Jean’s blog is here and she’s on Twitter as @writerjeangill. Jessica’s website is here and she’s @msbessiebell. Joni says she’ll be hosting a memoir writing retreat this autumn, her website is here or you can follow her on Facebook. She says she used to tweet, but as long as Donald Trump is on Twitter, she won’t be.
And if you’re curious about the book I’m working on, there’s more about it here.
Bonus! Here’s an episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss the memoirist’s art.
Any insights to share about writing memoir? Or questions? Fire away.
Bald In The Land of Big Hair, Barbara Taylor Sissel, cancer memoir, Colleen Thompson, Dan Holloway, Dear Reflection: I Never Meant To Be A Rebel, First You Write: The Worst Way to Become an Almost Famous Author and the Best Advice I Got While Doing It, How Blue Is My Valley, how to write memoir, Jean Gill, Jessica Bell, Joni Rodgers, living in Provence, Marjorie Braman, narrative non-fiction
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