“Crucial Advice For Memoir Writers”

You Need Wounds To Finger to Make Powerful Communications

No one wants to read about your happy pain-free life. There’s no story in that. I knew this when I began writing my memoir In the Mirror: A Memoir of Shattered Secrets when I was sixty-eight years old.

Even before my divorce at age forty, I had written scenes of my marriage to a man who fathered my four children and ultimately left me to live with a man. I also wrote poetry, an outpouring of emotion in brief lyrical form, a safe retreat from explaining/showing my emotions in prose.

Twenty years later, to finish an MFA degree in creative writing, I used some of these prose pieces and poems to put together a hasty and not very well-written thesis about my gay husband and falling in love with my boss. Twenty years after graduate school, I decided to use this thesis as an outline to write what I hoped would be a publishable memoir.

I didn’t realize how painful the journey would be. In fact, the memories were so painful that I decided to write it as an autobiographical novel, switching from first person to third, focusing only on my first (gay) husband, not on my second (alcoholic) husband or my brain-injured daughter, and writing a romantic ending that I wished had really happened.

I avoided the truth. Avoided digging into troubling emotions, which a dear friend kept telling me I did in the stories I sent her.

I Wasn’t Making Powerful Connections

Or so I thought when I found a small press in Salt Lake City that was seeking manuscripts.

I’m still amazed that the submissions editor said the story brought her to tears, even in its ragged form.

When I signed the contract, little did I know the tears of frustration I would shed during the next year and a half as I struggled with the manuscript. It wasn’t working, and my editor was about to give up on me when I woke up one morning with an epiphany, the words sliding into my mind:

Write it in first person. Tell the truth of your memories about both husbands and your daughter.   

I was determined not to give up.

While revising my thesis and resurrecting painful memories to add to it, I read a lot of memoirs. I kept turning to scenes in Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Alice Sebold’s Lucky. They were both masters of dialogue.

Dialogue, not description, was my strong point. A reader of my memoir In the Mirror used this example in a review she shared online. In this scene from chapter ten, it has been almost four years since my first husband confessed his sexual relations with men. Not believing he was totally faithful to me, my underlying tensions had increased, exacerbated by the fact that Utah had no snow in the mountains or valleys that winter of 1975, which meant no water in the reservoirs. A physical drought that mirrored my emotional one. I was almost helpless with fear.

     Larry usually left early even though he didn’t have classes until ten, but this morning he was late getting up.
He was showering when I crawled back into bed and pulled the afghan up to my neck. It wasn’t cold, but I shivered as I looked at the two panels of red drapes that were half open, revealing a piece of the sky, a piece of infinity.
All that space. How could God control it? And what about eternity, forever and ever? No beginning. No end.
Suddenly, I was terrified. Moaning, I gripped my head and rocked back and forth. I leaned against the pillow and shut my eyes for a moment.
Larry came naked into the room. He opened a drawer, pulled out his underwear, put it on, and looked at me. “What’s wrong?” he said.
“I don’t know. I’m terrified.
He sat on the edge of the bed and touched my leg. “Why?”
“Years ago, a long time ago, I was with my parents and brother and sister, and we were going around the Point of the Mountain, and I suddenly had this fear. There was all that space with no beginning and no end. I was frightened and pulled back and the fear went away. But today I was staring at the sky through the window, and I thought how I can’t comprehend God. I can’t comprehend anything. I can’t comprehend living forever.”
“Can you comprehend dying forever?”
“No.” That was worse. I pulled my knees to my chest and cried out, “Do you understand? Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you ever thought about this?”
“Well, I’ve thought about it,” he said, “but it doesn’t frighten me. I know I can’t comprehend infinity with my finite mind.”
“What will we do forever? What if we get so far and there’s nothing left to do? Eternal boredom.” I moaned and leaned back against the pillows.

The above scene occurs in chapter ten of my memoir, whereas this riveting scene occurs at the beginning of Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky, the stark dialogue and description immediately sucking me into a scene that’s so riveting I feel as if I’m the victim.

     This is what I remember.
My lips were cut. I bit down on them when he grabbed me from behind and covered my mouth.
He said these words: “I’ll kill you if you scream.”
I remained motionless.
“Do you understand? If you scream you’re dead.”
I nodded my head. My arms were pinned to my sides by his right arm wrapped around me and my mouth was covered with his left.
He released his hand from my mouth. I screamed.
Quickly. Abruptly.
The struggle began.

How Much Do You Need To Remember?

For some situations, a lot. In Alice Sebold’s case, the justice she sought for her rape would determine the answer to this question. She had to remember everything in the court room. Remembering everything was also invaluable when she wrote her memoir. The court testimony is one of the most vivid elements in her memoir. Her recall and stamina were amazing.

She was nineteen years old when a few months after her rape, she approached Professor Tobias Wolff’s. She was one of his students in his fiction writing class at Syracuse University and could barely concentrate on any kind of writing. When she confided in him about the rape, she said she knew her attacker and wanted to take him to court.

Professor Wolff told her, “Try if you can to Remember Everything.”

Time, place, what her rapist said, what he did to her. Crucial details for the grueling courtroom interrogation.

Also excellent advice for Sebold the writer that would eventually culminate in a memoir so vivid that almost two decades after reading it, I can still see and feel rape scene in the tunnel.

It would be a long writing journey. In her words, she previously wrote drafts that were “kind of fuzzy and bland.” She told a Los Angeles Times reporter she said she believed her previous attempts failed because “I felt the burden of trying to write a story that would encompass all rape victims’ stories, and that immediately killed the idea of this individual character in the novel. … I didn’t want to make any political missteps.”

About Lucky she said: “The thing that’s really freeing about the memoir was then my responsibility was only to tell my story and to tell it as well as I possibly can. So I didn’t have to worry about speaking for everyone else. The result is a memoir that reads like detective fiction, replete with police jargon, economical characterization, and film-like scene construction.”

An Unhappy Childhood Is A Goldmine For a Writer  

Just when Sebold believed she might surface from a world of violent crime, a close friend was raped, and the haunting she still felt from the rape continued.

Great memoirists quite often are haunted by a miserable childhood.

Wrote the late Frank McCourt at the beginning of his phenomenally popular Pulitzer Prize memoir Angela’s Ashes:

When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: The happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

He was in his mid-sixties when he wrote the memoir. I was in my late sixties when I decided to brave reading his story.

The prose was stunning, and stunningly painful. Some scenes were so painful I could barely stand to read them. I had an elderly friend who loved memoirs, but she couldn’t finish the book, it was too painful.

I tried to tell her that the way he told the story, without hate or rancor, kept me reading, but she still didn’t want to finish it.

McCourt wrote his memoir the way New York Times Bestseller memoirist Mary Karr in her Art of Memoir said you must write such a story about somebody you hate. You write it with great love.

You use humor, one of the difficult tools to use well, but one of the most powerful tools for a writer. The subtle use of humor can ease tension and give respite from difficult moments, as it did for the adult McCourt writing about his emotionally and physically horrendous childhood.

Jeannette Walls also brilliantly uses humor in her classic memoir The Glass Castle, a moving tale of “a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.” The Amazon bio continues, “For two decades” she hid her roots, but was ultimately able to view her parents with “deep affection and generosity.”

She did this through a child’s eyes, as McCourt also did, as Tobias Wolff did. A child who hasn’t yet learned how to hate, who can still feel unconditional love.

I love the voice in this scene near the beginning of The Glass Castle.

     Dad said something about freaks of nature, and Mom called Dad
a Mr. Know-It-All Smarty-Pants who refused to believe that
she was special.

      Dad said something about Jesus H. Christ on a goddamn crutch
not taking that much time to gestate.

      Mom got upset at Dad’s blasphemy, reached her foot over to the
driver’s side, and stomped on the brake. It was the middle of the
night, and Mom bolted out of the car and ran into the darkness.

      “You crazy bitch!” Dad hollered. “Get your goddamn ass back
in this car!”

      “You make me, Mr. Tough Guy!” she screamed as she ran away.

Walls remembers many colorful metaphors that her dad used. He was, she wrote, an intelligent man with a passion for logic. A skilled electrician and engineer. He often tried inventing “contraptions” that he hoped would make the family rich. According to Walls, he was “an independent thinker, to the point that he is paranoid of the U.S. government and sees conspiracies in almost any organized system.”

He was also an alcoholic, and couldn’t or wouldn’t control his drinking. Yet Walls doesn’t focus on the bad, as most children wouldn’t. As the adult writing the story, she recalls so much of the good in her parents, and their streaks of wisdom.

Her mother’s “it’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”

Her dad’s “poor old Venus didn’t even make her own light.” He loved star-gazing with her, and she fondly remembers being caught up in astronomy at Christmas time, his way of diverting her siblings and her attention away from the fact that there was no Santa Claus in their lives. Dad hardly made enough money to feed them, and drank most of what he did make.

Like McCourt’s use of humor and monosyllabic diction that works magic, Walls also makes magic with her vivid imagery and simple diction. It’s difficult to explain. You just have to feel it.

What about you? Do you like to read memoirs of “ordinary” people? What are your favorites?

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