Let’s talk about memoir. When memoir is done well, it strikes a universal chord. In other words, you may be writing about you, you, you, and yours, but we the readers have connected with your story. As distinct as the details of your story may be, we recognize ourselves in you.
Unlike biography and autobiography, a memoir isn’t about a whole life but, rather, one aspect of it. Memoir also differs from autobiography in its use of at least two voices – the innocent voice, reporting this happened, then this happened, then this; and the experienced voice, reflecting upon and interpreting the surface event or subject.
Immersion memoir differs from memoir in that the immersion memoirist takes on some outward task or journey in order to put her life in perspective. Think Julie & Julia, or Robin Hemley’s Do-Over! In Which a Forty-Eight-Year-Old Father of Three Returns to Kindergarten, Summer Camp, the Prom, and Other Embarrassments, or Kelly Kathleen Ferguson’s My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself, which I highly recommend for two reasons. It’s funny as hell, and it’s a good example of a writing project that started as an investigation of an obsession. As Robin Hemley says in A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, “Obsession is a great place from which to start any investigation– any book at all, as a matter of fact.” With the focus on the outward task or journey, we approach our aim, which is to effectively write about our travels, our connections/vulnerabilities to certain places, and our journeys, whether they lead us far afield or very close to home.
More from Hemley’s Field Guide:
In any memoir, and this is certainly true with immersion memoir, there has to be something more substantial at stake emotionally for the writer. … We have to care about the protagonist of the story, and we can only do so if we see what’s at stake, what your motivations are, and how your project compliments your life– or, more frequently, troubles it.
Any writer writing about the past is recovering the dead, is Orpheus leading Eurydice from Hades. [As we know, in the myth, the backward glance is bad] … For the memoirist, the backward glance is in itself what saves.
Three books I recommend if you would like to delve deeper into the personal essay and memoir: The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Phillip Lopate; Fearless Confessions–A Writer’s Guide to Memoir by Sue William Silverman; and A Field Guide for Immersion Writing by Robin Hemley, which I’ve just been quoting. I quote and flat-out pilfer ideas from all three of the above. A lot. Speaking of Lopate, in a Poets & Writers interview with Phillip Lopate, he talks about Persona, which you might say is a subset of Voice. The word persona comes from the Latin for mask. A persona is a facet of your entire self. Which mask are you wearing today? Which hat? For example, when Kernville Kate takes her kids to a Bakersfield Blaze game, for example, she’s a different woman than the Kate ordering a vanilla latte at the Big Blue Bear coffee shop with her girlfriends. Why do we need to compartmentalize ourselves like this? Simply to hone in on whatever point we’re trying to make in our writing, even if we’re only writing for ourselves to figure out what we think about something.
Here’s what Lopate has to say on the subject:
“The mind produces thought after thought, and it’s incredibly random and vagrant. We need focus, and we need to pretend that we’re more coherent than we really are. This kind of writing posits a more coherent self, which is a kind of achievement—that your self has coalesced into something, however limited, more than the rest of the culture wants to allow.
One of the ways you try to assert a coherent self is by constructing a self-conscious persona, saying, ‘I like this, I don’t like this, I tend to do this, I don’t tend to do this.’ One of the ways that you can construct a persona is to be peculiar to yourself, problematic—to mistrust yourself. You say, ‘I am an odd duck,’ and then you begin to talk through this persona.
This persona may change from piece to piece, depending on the task at hand. There are essays in which I’m much more genial, and others in which I’m much more curmudgeonly—some in which I come across as a regular guy, and some in which I come across as an intellectual snob. I’m aware of these ranges in my character, and I see this happening in real life.
The persona issues from an awareness of natural traits, of behavior. You construct a character out of what you know to be your propensities, your limitations, your inclinations, your habits, and you play with it.
Writing a piece of nonfiction is a conscious act, it’s an artifice, however naked or transparent you want to be. You may as well accept that guilt and go at it. Roll up your sleeves and say, ‘Okay, I’m constructing a persona here. I want to create the appearance of total frankness, but I know that I’m being highly selective.’ The selection has to do with what events or parts you choose to highlight. However, you don’t have to put everything in there. People are under the mistaken impression when they first start that if they can’t tell one secret, then they have to be reserved. You can be very unbuttoned about some things and still keep secret about many others.”
Here’s what Hemley has to add:
It’s possible to be completely honest about yourself and at the same time selective and manipulative in the details you choose for the sake of keeping prose focused and moving at a readable pace.
Does this make sense?
The following are tips I’ve adapted from author, teacher, and Capital-A-Awesome Ana Maria Spagna. Tips for writing memoir in general:
- Remember it’s not autobiography, not an entire life but part of a life.
- Remember, always, that it’s about you, not the other characters in the book.
- Balance action with reflection.
- Include the “now” perspective (it may have happened back then, but what does it mean to you now?).
- Show change in yourself – or in your perspective – over time.
- Besides first person, memoirs can be written in:
Second person – “you”
First person plural – “we”
Third person – narrator/author as “he” or “she”
- Persona: Recognize yourself as multi-dimensional (i.e., you wear different hats), and focus on the dimension, the persona, the particular aspect of yourself that drives the particular story you’re telling.
- Be fearless!