Two weeks ago I became a grandmother.
Aside from the excitement, happiness, and gratitude I’m feeling, I suddenly see my own child from a new perspective as he assumes a new role. I will have no say in the way this child is brought up, but on the other hand, I can play with her and give her back dirty.
I am about to become a marginal player in my own life.
One consolation: grandparents and grandchildren have a special relationship because they share a common enemy.
All kidding aside, I’ve been thinking a lot these past few months about the legacies we leave to those we love and to the world at large. Indeed, when I describe this blog, I say that I help people make their mark on the world with tips and techniques to improve their writing.
For some of you this means to publish. Some of you write because you can’t imagine not writing. Some of you use writing as catharsis, others as therapy. Back in 1988, when I was reeling from, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, “a sad thing that happened to me,” daily writing on the subway to and from work in a shabby spiral notebook literally kept me sane.
Besides its being cathartic as well as one of the best ways to get perspective on events in our past, writing memoir (notice I don’t use the article “a” in front of the word “memoir”) is a terrific way to leave a legacy.
Here’s how one of the definitive books on memoir writing, Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standard Text for Writing & Life, is introduced on Amazon:
A recent study revealed that the Number 1 thing that baby boomers want to do in retirement is write a book….about themselves. It’s not that every person has lived such a unique or dramatic life, but we inherently understand that writing memoir – whether it’s a book, blog, or just a letter to a child – is the single greatest portal to self-examination.
What memoir is and what it isn’t
Writing memoir doesn’t need an “a” because it’s not one specific, definitive work; that would be an autobiography. Memoir is its own genre, like poetry, history, fiction, etc. You come at it from an entirely different perspective than that of (auto)biography, because it begins and ends in the middle. Writing memoir is about vignettes.
I like to recall what Anne Lamott describes in her well-known book on writing, Bird by Bird, which I have mentioned in a previous post. She describes the “one-inch frame” method of writing, wherein you imagine your life as a big canvas, then take an imaginary one-inch frame and place it down on one small part of the canvas and write about that. I used this method in a writing class I taught at the beginning of the year. I gave my students a subject – gym class – and they had fifteen minutes to write their memories about it from any perspective they chose. Later I’ll talk a bit about what I wrote.
Roach Smith says memoir should offer transcendence to the reader (and to yourself, I might add). How did gym class change you? Your perspective on life? Your self-perception? Don’t make your memoir just a page torn out of your journal. Observe the small things and mold them into something bigger than just you. Get out of your own way and tell the story.
William Zinsser says that what we write about our own lives can be “immensely helpful to other [people] wrestling with similar angels and demons.”
Yet Zinsser, who is the author of On Writing Well and Writing about Your Life, two other outstanding, must-read books on writing (the latter of which is dedicated to memoir), warns us not to go whole hog and make memoir into therapy (although you’re allowed to use it as therapy as long as you promise not to publish it). Here’s what he says (emphasis mine throughout): “Make sure every component in your memoir is doing useful work.…see that all the details…are moving your story steadily along.” This is something I’ve mentioned before – all elements in your plot or your nonfiction piece are there for one purpose only: to advance the plot or thesis.
What will the neighbors – or my mother – think?
One of the biggest fears of writing memoir is that someone will read it. Memoirists are afraid people in their life will recognize themselves and be livid. They are afraid to reveal their and others’ secrets.
This is a legitimate concern. Here’s what my friend Carol Ungar, author and leader of memoir workshops, has to say:
Like the Nike slogan, just do it. Too many people don’t because they are petrified about whom they will alienate. Don’t let your fears freeze you up. Write your story. After you’ve got it down there will be plenty of time to solve potential libel issues. Remember ؘ– you are free to delete revealing names and personal details, publish under a pen name or even segue into fiction.
Lamott has a hilarious piece of advice with regard to old boyfriends: tell the truth, but change one little detail which would embarrass him if he took you to court. See the last chapter of Bird by Bird.
It’s all in the details
Every author I’ve mentioned above stresses that memoir is all about the details. Roach Smith says to take something small and develop it into something universal, something we can all relate to.
“Unlike autobiography, which spans an entire life, memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it. The memoir writer takes us back to some corner of his or her past that was unusually intense…or that was framed by…[an] upheaval.” Notice the word “frame.” This is not a coincidence.
“Think narrow, then, when you try the form. Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.”
Ever notice that windows have frames?
Use all of your senses as you write memoir: the taste of your grandmother’s chicken soup, the smell of your mother’s perfume, the heat of the asphalt on your sneakers, the scratch of the microphone.
Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth
That is how Elizabeth Gilbert begins her memoir, Eat Pray Love.
Don’t be pretentious; don’t look over your own shoulder when writing memoir. As Zinsser points out, “To write a good memoir you must become the editor of your own life, imposing…a narrative shape. Memoir is the art of inventing the truth.”
Many writers trap themselves into literary straitjackets; it doesn’t even occur to some of us that we can write about the person and history we know best. Zinsser says this comes from thinking we don’t have permission to write about ourselves; on the contrary, we get permission “by being born.” Readers want to read “whatever it is that makes [us] unique.” He says that if you are afraid or don’t have the nerve to write memoir, it means you think you don’t have permission.
Give yourself permission.
What I wrote about gym class
When I wrote my vignette about gym class, instead of describing basketball games or my green shorts and white shirt, I wrote about this one bully of a girl who used to taunt and belittle me in the locker room. She was a beautiful, tanned, blond girl and I was, uh, pretty homely, with my pale skin and jet-black afro (not the bronzed sun goddess I am today). Gym was absolute torture. Day after day I was bullied by this witch.
This is a universal theme about pre-adolescence: being homely, being underdeveloped, being unpopular, being a lousy basketball player, being humiliated, being uncomfortable in one’s own body.
Isn’t it time you started writing memoir?
I challenge you to write a short, 500-1,000 word vignette. Give yourself fifteen to twenty-five minutes. Go ahead and place that one-inch frame on any piece of your canvas. Pay attention to the details, to your five senses, to the emotions bubbling up. Show, don’t tell.
Anyone who would like to share their memoir with me and the group is welcome to paste it to the comments below, or to email it to me at Deena@BulletproofWriting.com. If you give me permission, I’ll publish a few of them on my Writer’s Clinic page.
top image: khunaspix for FreeDigitalPhotos.net