Readers of memoir love a “real” story. But once you’ve invited them into your story, your life, it is only by utilizing the craft of fiction that you keep them there. Along about the eleventh draft of Cleft Heart: Chasing Normal, I realized I had to pay more attention to the dicta of fiction: the building of character, the nurturing of plot which reveals character, and the construction of scenes and settings. Being the veteran of four academic books, did not aid me in my epic struggle with my memoir, which, at times, drowned me in the sea of perpetual doubt. Perseverance, that oft-hidden trait, and the drive to reveal, deal with and bare the past is what buoyed me to the surface and pulled me to shore, a saved wretch, now hugging my published memoir, a book that has asked more of me and given more to me than any project so far.
If you are contemplating writing a memoir, I urge you to learn the craft of fiction writers— novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters—who trade in conflict, build drama to a climax, and provide a satisfying resolution (whether upbeat or tragic). A writer must also use an engaging, authentic, unique “voice” with which to relate the events, structured into vivid scenes. My humble take on an admittedly complex enterprise is that today’s memoir is nonfiction in form, but it reads like fiction, like a novel. As such, it demands that the author gain the skills aforementioned: story structure, character development, plotting and scene development, the nuances of dialogue and pacing, and voice.
I reached the above conclusion after conducting periodic Google searches to figure out the latest spate of rejections from agents and publishers. The current canon dictates that you make your narrative as interesting as possible by telescoping events, pumping up dialogue, rearranging time and characters, and injecting sensory tidbits, especially sounds and smells. Some call this endeavor “creative literacy” or “narrative nonfiction” or “creative non-fiction.” Memoir expert Judith Barrington calls this “the literary memoir.”
Whatever you call memoir and however you write it, it must convey the truth. This means you’ve got to conduct a good deal of research, often in the field, sleuthing and interviewing. Therefore, you can’t succumb to the old storyteller’s maxim: don’t let the truth spoil a good story. However, emotional truth may trump factual truth on occasion, and you may need to rearrange events for greater conflict or impact. Like any good story, there must be a pay-off, but this is heightened, I believe, for memoir, as it is based on real people in real places, suffering real conflict. Readers must sense that the author has dug deeply, perhaps revealed too much, or broken taboos or loyalties to family members, friends, colleagues, informants, whether veiled or not. If a writer fears offending, he or she will most likely temper the truth, but this will dampen the story, the very reason and emotional grip that drove the author to “tell all” in the first place.
If you’ve read this far, you may think that writing a memoir, as I’ve laid it out, is either the easiest genre to write—after all, it’s your own story—or the hardest. How do you distance yourself enough to add a genuine and multi-faceted perspective while having the nerve to bare all, even if it offends those closest to you? I will tell you how: write from the heart or stay on shore, safely out of the waves and turmoil. But if you, like me, are driven to tell a story—without holding back—know that you are not alone.
I invite you to visit my website for more information about my story and for the opportunity to join in the community and camaraderie of memoirists, writers, and storytellers, searching out good stories to share.