Memoir: What it is/What it isn’t

By guest blogger, Alison Wearing

I think it’s so much easier to define memoir by what it’s not…Memoir is not a chronological recitation of a life. It’s not therapy. It’s not an accusation. It’s not a boast. It’s not fiction. It’s not gossip. Memoir is a search to understand the human condition—to tell a personal, resonating story. Memoir writers look back with empathy—toward themselves and toward others. They fabricate nothing on purpose. They know what to leave out. And they recognize—explicitly and implicitly—they are not the only ones in the room. Their readers matter, too.” 
Beth Kephart, author of Handling the Truth

It used to be that only famous people wrote about their lives: retired politicians, Hollywood personalities, rock stars. They wrote their memoirs; they still do. The aim of a person’s memoirs is to cover as much of a life as possible, to draft an overview that touches on all the essential points: family, education, relationships, influences, crucial turning points, successes, failures, accomplishments. Memoirs can also be called autobiographies.

More often than not, memoirs and autobiographies are structured chronologically, and generally, we are drawn to read them because the authors (or, in the case of ghostwritten autobiographies, the subjects) are people already familiar to us. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing an autobiography, as long as your intended audience is your family or those close to you (unless you are famous, in which case your fans await your story!).

I once had a woman in one of my workshops who was creating a handwritten and hand-bound autobiography, complete with sketches of floor plans of the houses the family had lived in, paintings of significant buildings, black-and-white photographs. It was a magnificent creation and will be a priceless treasure for her family and future generations. Those of us in the workshop enjoyed paging through the volumes, admiring certain drawings and photographs, but the story itself didn’t invite or include us. It was a series of details that had relevance only to the people involved in the life described. For what it was, it was spectacular. I don’t want to detract from that approach and the author was very clear about what she was doing and for whom. The reason she joined my workshop was to learn how to write more personally, to delve into the realm of communicating emotion rather than simply the facts. I’m not sure she’ll choose to include that kind of writing in her book, but her family might treasure that intimacy if she does. Either way, this kind of a work isn’t a memoir. It’s an autobiography. It’s the whole kit and caboodle. It’s the wide-angle photo of a life.

An autobiography can be a beautiful endeavor, but it is markedly different from a memoir. For while an autobiography is the story of a life, a memoir is a story from a life.

A memoir may visit different parts and elements of a person’s life, but the intention is not to tell or describe the whole thing. It may deal with a period of time, a place, a relationship, a journey, or several of those things, but the story is delineated, it has a container far smaller than the span of the writer’s life. A memoir has a focus; ideally, it has a clear and narrow focus. And paradoxically, the narrower the focus, the greater the freedom the writer may have to talk about the breadth and fullness of her life. We’ll delve into that more deeply when we get into structure, but for now, let’s just cover the basics of the genre.

In addition to a clear focus, a memoir has, at its heart, a transformation of some kind, a shift in perspective or understanding, a new way of seeing one’s life, a place, a relationship, the world, whatever the theme of the story.

In this way, a memoir often chronicles an emotional journey of some kind, a departure from one aspect of oneself and an arrival at another (often more enlightened) state of being. The author might be trying to achieve resolution, to solve of a problem, or to achieve a higher understanding or acceptance of circumstances, events.

Or, as Mary Karr, author of the now-classic memoir The Liar’s Club, puts it: “In a great memoir, some aspect of the writer’s struggle for self often serves as the book’s organizing principle, and the narrator’s battle to become whole rages over the book’s trajectory.”

The “battle” Karr refers to may take a variety of forms, and it might not be a dramatic fist-fight-of-a-battle so much as a peaceful and gradual unfolding. It could be a recollection of travels written from a broader perspective than what was available at the time.

It could be a revisiting of a traumatic incident from a place of recovery or empathy. Whatever its focus, a memoir is more than just an honest account of an event or a time, more than a simple recounting of events, more than a detailed reportage of a journey from A to B.

It is an effort to make sense of—and perhaps make peace with—an aspect of the writer’s life.

It is an exterior and interior expedition, a quest for meaning.

“Memoir is not about you, or me. It’s about something universal. That is, if you want anyone else to read it.  Good memoir takes on something universal and uses you as the illustration of that larger idea.”                                                                                     ~ Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project

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Alison Wearing is a best-selling, multiple-award winning writer, playwright, and performer.

She is also the creator and facilitator of Memoir Writing Ink, an interactive online program that guides people through the process of transforming personal stories into memoir.

Do you have a personal story you wish to write?

Do you wonder how to craft your story to make it compelling reading for others? Or how to structure it so it holds together? Or how to write about difficult memories? Or how to write truthfully about something that happened decades ago? Or what to do if someone else remembers the same events differently, or if they don’t want you to write your story?

These questions can paralyze us, but that doesn’t need to be the case. In fact, those same questions can be the doorways to the finest iterations of your story.

If you’d like to learn more about her 12-week course, visit: Memoir Writing, Ink

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Alison also leads Memoir Writing Retreats – next up is in Tuscany, Italy in October 2022 and in April 2023.  Interested?  Tuscany Retreats

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Me? Write a Memoir? But…!

by Gail Kittleson

Decades ago, some friends invited us to go rafting on a local stream. I thought our son, three years old at the time, would be excited, but he said,

          “I’m scared of those rabbits, Mommy.”

          “Rabbits?”

          “Yeah. Evelyn said we’re going to come to some rabbits…”

Those rapids would’ve scared me, too, if I thought they might hop into our raft. After a bit of explanation about the mild rapids, our son loved rafting.

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Misunderstandings often ground our fears, and this proves true with writing. Being afraid to express our anxieties in black and white originates in false assumptions:

  1. What we write may be used against us.
  2. There’s a ‘right’ way to write, and we haven’t learned how.
  3. Once we write something down, we’re bound to the perspective we embraced at the time.
  4. Once written, our words will be “golden,” and therefore, we can’t destroy them.

          First of all, what we write may be used against us. But this is no reason to forego all the benefits of the process. Writing in a safe place that no one ever sees has done wonders for many people experiencing trials.

The feeling that we have no control over who might see what we write can keep us bound by the tide of emotions swirling inside us. Launching out to safely journal our thoughts, tied irrevocably to those emotions, may seem beyond our power.

          In order to take this tentative step, we must unlearn the second misconception, that there’s a ‘right’ way to write. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No perfect method for expressing what we feel exists.

In fact, the ‘perfect way’ will be the way our words come out. Each person’s story contains unique content, since it comes from our one-of-a-kind inner being. Each of us perceives even the identical situation with variations.

A family outsider, my sister, or my brother will see what I remember differently than I do. But my first feeble step—even if that amounts to writing one short paragraph about what’s transpiring inside me—unleashes immense healing power.

          Now to the third misnomer: we are not bound by our viewpoint at any given time. A glance around us reveals that everything changes constantly. The only constant is change, as they say.

If I still looked at what I experienced fifteen years ago with the same eyes, I would be in big trouble. But the thing is, I would never have arrived at my present perspective if I hadn’t started writing down my thoughts and feelings.

          At the time, my journal pages seemed somehow sacred, and they were. But as the years have passed, I’ve grown, and at certain points, I let go of certain writings from the pasts. Burned them, because they no longer seemed ‘golden.’ Some of them, I kept and edited. And re-edited, and re-re-edited into a memoir. That’s not the route for everyone, but proved to be an important part of my journey.

The point is, your writings are your writings. You have the right to choose what to do with them, including chucking them down a sinkhole never to be seen again.

And the broader point is that in the darkness of an emotional avalanche, we cannot even know what we think. By allowing words to flow from us, we invite clarity, and through this process, discover truths we would never have imagined.

Words equal an enormous gift—penned quietly in secret places, they blossom like hidden desert plants that bloom in darkness, where no one observes. But their flowers bear perfume, attracting the necessary insects for pollination. It may be that we will rework and launch our writings into a published memoir, but either way, this practice can become a powerful experience.

“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than You.” 
Dr. Seuss

 

Gail Kittleson 2

When Gail’s not steeped in World War II historical research, writing, or editing, you’ll find her reading for fun, gardening, or enjoying her grandchildren in Northern Iowa. She delights in interacting with readers who fall in love with her characters.

Gail Kittleson taught college expository writing and ESL before writing women’s historical fiction. From northern Iowa, she facilitates writing workshops and women’s retreats, and enjoys the Arizona Ponderosa forest in winter.

catching up

Catching Up With Daylight; a Journey to Wholeness, is Gail’s own memoir. She and her husband began renovating an old house after he returned from a deployment in Iraq.  The book is “a gorgeous tapestry of non-fictional thoughts. This very gifted author knows how to weave her thoughts, memories, and the history of the old house she is refurbishing into a journey of emotional and spiritual wholeness.”

 

Women of the Heartland, Gail’s World War II series, highlights women of The Greatest Generation: In Times Like These, April 2016, With Each New Dawn, February, 2017 A True Purpose (Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, and Word Crafts Press, December, 2017.)

 

  Cover_APuroseTrue    With Each New Dawn    In-times-like-these
Visit her at the following social media sites:

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NOTE: This article was posted for Gail Kittleson by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin
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