Memoir Writing

Say you’d like to try your hand at memoir writing. Maybe memoir writing is something you’ve considered for a while. Maybe you have a number of ideas already percolating: “I could write about baking cookies with Grandma. The day I found out my parents were splitting up. The roommate I had in college, the one who pretended to be cheerful and happy-go-lucky but sobbed herself to sleep at nightâÂ?¦” The potential topics for memoir writing are endless.

But maybe doubts are already creeping into your mind, keeping you from picking up your pen or sitting down at the computer: “Who’s going to care about my grandmother? My parents’ divorce? My unhappy roommate? My experiences aren’t really exciting or different. Who am I to even think about memoir writing? Why should I bother?”

When it comes to memoir writing, you should bother, for a number of reasons:

You have the right to record your life experiences, just by virtue of the fact that you’re a thoughtful human being. We make sense of our lives by telling stories-scribbling them down in a private journal, talking to friends and family. Some of us have a burning need to take that natural human gift for storytelling to the next level-memoir writing-and share our life events with readers, most of whom we’ll never meet. This desire doesn’t mean that you’re self-absorbed, or that you think what you have to say is more interesting than what others have to say. It simply means you want to connect with other people through memoir writing.

You have access to subject matter for memoir writing that no one else has: specific recollections of your personal history. Your parents probably remember all too well that awful day when they had to sit you down and break the bad news about their decision to separate. Maybe they still remember how you cried or got angry or sat staring at them without saying a word. But they can’t know exactly how you felt in that moment, everything that went through your mind, your physical sensations of panic or rage or relief. Only you can recall these things in a piece of memoir writing. On that day, there was only one “you.” There is still only one “you,” and your memories belong to no one else.

In memoir writing, there is value in speaking of the ordinary, the details of everyday life. The great fiction writer Raymond Carver wrote short stories populated by “ordinary” characters in ordinary situations: a waitress whose husband is embarrassed by her weight, a couple who snoop through another couple’s apartment while they’re out of town, a grumpy man who finds himself having to entertain his wife’s blind houseguest. These stories get under your skin because the characters could be you or someone you know. No wizards or ax-wielding murderers or sex-crazed housewives here: they just aren’t necessary to get your attention. Carver wrote mostly about the little moments that tend to go unnoticed; those moments mattered to him, and they mattered to his readers.

You can do in memoir writing what Carver did in fiction. The details of your life mean everything to you, right? You might be surprised to learn how much they can mean to others. Think about the reasons why people read memoir writing in the first place. Sure, many people spent time in the kitchen with their grandmothers when they were kids-but many others didn’t. Those who did will want to read your story about your grandmother in order to compare it to their own; it might bring back long-buried memories or make them view their moments with Grandma in a new light. People who didn’t have that cookie-baking time with Grandma will want to read your story so that they can live vicariously through your experience. (I belong to the latter group: my maternal grandmother died before I was born, and my paternal grandmother lived hours away. When a memoir writing workshop student brought in a short piece about cooking with her grandmother, I was intrigued: I not only got an intimate glimpse into someone’s special childhood relationship with a family member, I got the chance to imagine what a similar experience might have been like for me.)

Why should literary critics get to decide who can write memoir and who can’t? Many critics are biased against memoir writing and other forms of autobiography. Their stance is, “If you’re not famous or highly accomplished, or if you don’t have a wildly exciting life, we’re just not interested.” Too bad for them: they’re missing out on a ton of great memoir writing. Those very same critics might praise the “realism” of fiction like Raymond Carver’s, rhapsodizing about how it “celebrates” or “illuminates” the everyday stuff we don’t think about much. Somehow, the “realism” of real life as presented in memoir writing doesn’t wow them in quite the same way. They forget that ideas for stories come to many fiction writers through their personal experiences; the plot might spring from their imaginations, but the initial inspiration-and the universal human truths-come from their own lives.

Personally, I’d rather read about everyday life, whether in fiction or nonfiction, than about the the famous and the powerful. I can’t relate to stories of wealth and fame; and our culture is already so obsessed with celebrities, politicians, and the idle rich that there doesn’t seem to be much more to say about them. I might indulge in People magazine every now and then, but I usually find that a rock star’s memoir or a former President’s autobiography says far too much about far too little.

Every life is rich with stories. If you’re willing to take on the emotional and artistic challenges of memoir writing, you have every right to proceed.

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