Dear Friday Five-0:
Perusing the memoir shelves at any bookstore, it seems like the non-fiction that sells these days is written by former drug addicts, children of alcoholic parents, refugees of war, etc. I think I have something to say in a memoir, but I don’t know if it would be interesting to anyone but me.
Okay, I’m not a memoirist. I write fiction, just fiction. Short stories, novels, and Facebook statuses. I was going to hang my head, kick my toe around in the dirt and apologize for having the audacity to answer your irresistible question, but then I remembered: Oh yeah, I know what I’m talking about.
I READ memoirs.
And frankly, it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, poetry or autobiography. The short answer is: You had BETTER be interested in what you’re writing about. Because if you’re not interested in it, who else ever will be?
The first principle of good writing is BELIEF. Belief that you have something to say. Belief that what you have to say is important. Belief that your perspective on part of the world is new, interesting, will help other people. Thank goodness you have that belief already. Because without belief so strong it’ll make you levitate, you got nothing.
Because, however, I don’t write memoirs, I researched your question extensively by asking people on Twitter.
The first response was from @Van_O_Dudes (A van full of dudes). They said:
“@jenna_blum: It helps if it’s interesting. Just our opinion.”
What makes a memoir interesting? Does it have to be sensational to be salable? Do you have to be a war orphan? A disgraced-CEO-turned-Starbucks-counterboy? A recovering pyromaniac clown? Betty White?
I don’t think so. On the contrary, whenever I’m perusing the shelves at my local bookstore (REAL SHELVES full of REAL BOOKS at a REAL BOOKSTORE), whenever I see the latest autobiographical offering from a) an alcoholic b) an alcoholic child of alcoholics c) an alcoholic child of alcoholics who used to be pyromaniac clowns d) a celebrity struggling with addiction e) a celebrity recovering from addiction f) a celebrity with a sudden mental illness g) a right-wing Republican, I tend to go like this:
and go the other way.
That’s just my tendency as a reader. Please forgive me if you are any of the above, are Betty White, or are related to Betty White in any way and love her.
I just don’t like gimmicks. And to me, sensationalism of any sort is a gimmick. True, there are people with real poignant stories about terrible things: war, illness, terror, surviving grievous tragedy. My hat is off to them if they can tell their story and tell it well. But above all, just give me a good story about how people live any day. Give me Anne Tyler, who can write a whole novel about a husband and wife taking a car trip and not make you want to plunge a fork into your eyes–instead she makes you care about these people. Give me Stewart O’Nan, brave enough to tackle what happens to the staff when a Red Lobster closes. Give me Joan Didion, writing about her derangement in the year after her husband’s death. William Styron on the depression he survived after he inadvertently quit drinking. Wendy McClure on her obsession with Little House on the Prairie.
Little House on the Prairie? Really? And not even Melissa Gilbert writing about it but some ordinary chick? Who cares about her LHoP obsession?
By the time you finish reading, you do.
Because these writers find the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Because they know that really, there is no such thing as ordinary. Even the most ordinary-seeming person has a story.
The question is: what’s yours?
To answer this, you will need to answer this extremely important question: So what?
The So-What is what will separate your story from the literally millions of other stories out there. The So-What is your context, your guiding principle. How do you sieve what’s interesting from your life? What particular facet of it should make us want to read about you? What’s your So-What?
As freelance editor Kate Kennedy said, “Everyone loves memoir, but no one wants to read your journal…It comes down to writing, voice, and the ability to craft a cohesive narrative/arc out of the lived experience.”
Arc of the lived experience? How do you get on this arc?
When we were discussing his potential memoir, my partner said, “Okay. Let’s say I’m dead, and I have a book contract with a publisher in New York, and you’re an editor for that publisher, and you fly out here to find the garage packed with banker boxes. And in each box there’s another part of my life: I’ve been to all the fifty states. I worked in Hollywood. I worked for Larry Flynt. I dated lots of different women from different backgrounds. I’ve chronicled over 20 hurricanes and over 100 tornadoes. I’m the single child of a single mom. How would you organize my life story?”
I said: “You worked for Larry Flynt?”
He said: “Let’s stick to the program.”
I said: “How many hundreds of women did you date?”
He said: “This is a hypothetical.”
I said: “Okay, fine. Well, since you’re DEAD, I’d choose the angle that most interests me and let that be my orgainzing principle. Me being me, I’m most interested in the psychological angle: your being the single son of a single mom, how that shaped you, how your relationship with her shaped your clearly extensive and colorful adventures with many, many, many women, one of whom–one can only assume–undoubtedly caused your untimely demise.”
My partner said: ”But what about the weather?”
I said: “WHO CARES? See, that’s the thing. YOU think your whole life is interesting, and in fact, probably most of it is. But you can’t just write about your whole life. Everybody has a life. So what? Who cares? What part of it are you going to pull out and use as the backbone, for your story? What part of your life are you most interested in sharing with other people? What can you teach us through writing about it?”
He said: “Oh.”
The last piece of advice comes from Erika Imranyi, Senior Editor at Harlequin/Mira–also, when at Dutton/Penguin, the editor for my second novel, THE STORMCHASERS. She wrote, “Memoirs come in all shapes and sizes but voice is a must.”
The arc is the So-What. The voice is YOU. It’s the way experience is refracted into words; the way each of us, given the same experience, will choose different and specific words to express it. Be aware of your characteristic style, the way you put words together that’s as unique as a thumbprint. How would you describe yours? Can you list ten things that distinguish your voice? Are you wry? Terse? Funny? What are your tics? What are you best at? Similes? Dialogue? Description? Semicolons?
And then, just be you. You’re already on your way. After all, the honesty in your question attracted me enough to make me jump to answer it–even though I’m not a memoir writer.
What more encouragement do you need?