Introduction to Workshop
Today we're going to be moving on and talking about the book length memoir. And the first question that we need to look at is when does your story need to be a book and how do you decide whether you're writing a personal essay, as we were talking about in the previous class, or when you want to tackle, when you need to the space to expand into a full book. And I wanna say here, it's not that one is more advanced than the other, they're just completely different forms. There are highly skilled writers who have spent their lives writing short stories. Raymond Decarver never wrote a novel. He stayed with the short form. And I will confess to you, although we're going to be talking about the book length memoir that I truly believe, even if you are setting out to write a book length memoir and you're committed to that form, that it will serve you well to write some personal essays. PS, I've got a class in that. But when do you tackle the big one and how do you tackle the big one? When do yo...
u decide that you're ready to paint a mural, compose a symphony? One of the first things I suggest you do is to read a bunch of memoirs, and we're gonna be talking about, I'm gonna give you just some names I could talk all day about, wonderful memoirs that will assist you well. But it's interesting in my years of teaching memoir, I always begin by asking the writers in my groups, what memoirs have particularly inspired you. And it always amazes me when people say, and sometimes they do, they wanna write a memoir. Oh, well I haven't actually read too many memoirs. Read, read some good memoirs. And I am actually going to be using two memoirs that I have written, that I have published as examples today, over the course of the day. And I do that, not because I want to suggest that mine are the ultimate memoirs, but they're the ones that I wrote. They're the ones that I know best and that I can speak to you about with most authority. And I was involved in the process that I'm gonna be sharing that process with you. So read a bunch of memoir, write essays. Write a lot of essays before you tackle the big memoir. And here comes the big one. Know what you have to say. Know what your story is. When there's, when a person is at a dinner party and recounting something that's happened in her life, I'm sure this has happened to many of you, there's always somebody who says, oh you should write a book about it. That's an incredible experience, you should write a book about it. I wanna tell you that those friends, as much as they love you and as well as intentioned as their encouragement is, are not necessarily your best guides. A memoir is not going to be supported by some amazing experience you had, some person you met at some event who was very famous, who had the guy who walked the tightrope between the twin towers or you know, a person who landed on Normandy Beach. Ultimately, your memoir needs to come from deep within you. Your memoir cannot be a story of things you have seen, people you have met, amazing experiences you have had. It needs to have a central core that is you. And unlike the personal essay, which may focus on a single event, your memoir is probably going to spread out over time. Maybe not your whole life, however. Let's look at what a memoir is not. A few things a memoir is not. An autobiography. Many people get those things confused. An autobiography is the story of your life and contrary to what many people suppose, your memoir is not. It's the story of parts of your life. We're gonna be talking a lot more about this when we look at particular memoirs and the ones that I've written and the ones that you are going to be writing. It's the story about one particular journey in your life. There are a few, there are some people who have written their autobiography and we probably need those. You know, the autobiography of Winston Churchill. Historical figures. Inventors, big religious thinkers. People who have lived through pieces of history and we find out where they were born and how they grew up and who they met, and every chapter of their life. I hope this will take you off the hook when I say this, you do not need to tell every single thing that happened in your life. An opportunity for revenge. Doesn't that sound like a book you wanna pick up? Oh, I'm really gonna stick it to my ex-husband in this memoir. There is a stink to that kind of writing, it always shows through. And in fact, some of you who've listened to other classes of mine have heard me say this before, but I can't say it too many times, it is the obligation, the responsibility of a writer to locate compassion for every single character he or she writes about. And it doesn't mean you, you take it upon yourself to say, well my mother would probably say or I understand that my father had a hard life. It's not your job to write their memoir, but it is the responsibility of a good memoir writer, and incidentally a memoir writer who wants some memoir readers, to go to the stories even if the people who have hurt us the most and look and try to imagine them as people with their own story. You don't have to tell their story, just know it exists. A tribute. And here I'll sort of jump ahead for a second and say that one of the two memoirs of mine that I'm gonna be talking about a fair amount today is my most recent memoir that was published last fall, and incidentally just coming out in paperback, called The Best of Us. The Best of Us, some people might say that The Best of Us is the story about my husband's death to cancer two years ago. It's not, actually. Seven years ago I met my second husband, Jim and we married a couple years later and a year after that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and a year and a half after that, he died. It is not a book about cancer. It is not a book about death. It's a love story. But the other thing it is not, is a tribute to Jim. There's no reason on earth why you should spend 20 bucks reading my tribute to my dead husband. There needs to be something in it for the reader. You know, there's a kind of writing, I can always spot this. Sometimes celebrities do this in their memoirs, when they'll sort of give a hat tip to somebody that they know is going to be reading the book and they know that that sentence will make them feel good. I had dinner with so and so and his lovely wife, and you know that that writer is saying that because so and so is going to be reading this book and maybe the lovely wife will too. It is not your job to be writing to a particular, in fact it is your job to not do this, to be thinking about a particular reader and making sure that they feel good. A way to heal great pain or trauma. And you know, I actually believe that writing well, writing a good memoir may accomplish that, but that must not be your goal. When I was on the book tour for The Best of Us, going all around the country last year, every single night at whatever library or bookstore or event I was at, somebody would say, it must have been so cathartic to write that book. And yes indeed, it was. But my catharsis is my problem or my need, and it is not for you to have to, again pay 20 bucks for my catharsis. Simply working through your pain belongs in the pages of your journal. What we're talking about today is communicating to a reader, giving something out to the reader, not taking something in. An exploration of your special subject, a subject that you're a specialist in. There are people, and some in this audience, who wrote descriptions of the memoirs they wanted to read who talk about fields of expertise they have. Jane Goodall for instance, wonderful writer, wonderful human being, has written a lot about apes and her experience of being in the wild and her knowledge of the ape world is extensive. I don't know all that much about Jane Goodall as a human being. And this is no criticism of Jane Goodall. I just don't view her books about her work and her adventures, and I have to admit here in case somebody's gonna be messaging in from the internet, I haven't read everything that Jane Goodall has written. But looking out and reporting on the subjects about which you are very knowledgeable is a well, is a worthwhile enterprise, but not memoir. A collection of anecdotes. And this is one of the most common impulses of a new memoir writer. Especially a person who has a lot of great stories and we're actually gonna hear from one of those people today, and I'm gonna nudge him along a little bit further from the collection of anecdotes. Certainly great stories are gonna come up in your memoir, but whatever famous people you've encountered, whatever funny events or shocking events, or amazing coincidences you have witnessed ultimately, the function of your memoir is to know you. And to know you in a way that teaches us something about ourselves. So what should a memoir be? I like to call it a journey. When I sit down to write, and this is actually true whether I'm writing a personal essay or what will be a 350 page memoir, I wanna take you on a trip. And one of the fundamental things about a trip is you go some place. You are not in the same place at the end of the trip as you are at the beginning. There is change, there is discovery. There is transformation, there is resolution. There is an arc to the story. I'm drawn to this whiteboard, I'm gonna talk about the whiteboard a little bit later more, but I think I just have to write this word, the arc. And if I were drawing, the arc looks like this. A collection of anecdotes looks like this. They don't necessarily build to something bigger than the end of the collection of anecdotes. It's very enjoyable to experience them, but a big test, a great test for the collection of anecdotes kind of book is, could you rearrange them? Would there be anybody who would notice if this anecdote went here and this anecdote went here. And there are kinds of stories that do build to support a theme, but ultimately the theme is what I'm looking for. That even as you go through countries, partners, wives, husbands, years, jobs, illnesses, financial ups and downs there is some kind of through line that carries you along. I publish both memoir and fiction, and I've actually written more novels than memoirs, although I go back and forth between the two. Sometimes I'm asked, what's your favorite. I don't have a favorite, I love both. And actually, and then somebody will say, what's the difference between the two of them? Really, only one. The memoir is the story of things that actually happened and fiction is made up. But other than that, the same rules of storytelling always apply. And so I'm going to write down, story. It had darn well better be a good story. I want to make you laugh. I most certainly want to make you cry. I want to make you feel. I want to shake you up a little bit. My favorite kind of letter to get, and I'm proud to say I get them quite a bit is from a person who says, "Damn you, I need to get up and go to work in the morning "and I stayed up til 4am reading your book." And that's exactly what I want to do. I want to keep you turning the pages, and I want you to keep your readers turning the pages. It is especially, in this day and age, it is always easier for the reader to stop reading, to put down the book, to check in with Facebook or Google something. There are so many distractions. The reader's attention span is not what it used to be. I don't think people would continue to read Charles Dickens if he were just setting out to publish now, it's too slow. You watch a movie that was made, this has happened many times. I go back now that we can see all these movies on Netflix, some movie that I loved in the '70s and I realize, it wouldn't work now. It doesn't go fast enough. So isn't it pretty self-involved to write a memoir? Is there anybody who struggles with that question? You know, like oh yes, why am I always looking at me? Am I a narcissist, am I an egotist? What's so special about me? What's so special about you is that you have access to you and you're the only person whose life you have 100% knowledge of, if you do your work. Some people actually have been knocking around on this planet for a lot of years and they still don't know themselves. So one of the first jobs of writing a good memoir is to know who you are. I actually have to say, I don't struggle with this self-involved problem. I do think I'm really interesting. I'm interested in myself, I'm happy to say I'm really interested in other people too, but I'm not gonna try to write your memoir because I don't know you well enough to do that. I don't think I have the right to. There's a struggle that I have as a fiction writer, I have spent years going to Guatemala, long periods of time living in Guatemala. I don't write characters who are indigenous Guatemalans even though I know many of them very well. I don't inhabit their life. I've sometimes been criticized for not writing black characters. I don't think I would do that well enough. I don't think that's a job that I should assign myself. The story that I am able to tell, and I never pretend that I'm addressing all of human experience is the one that I have lived. And if each of us told our particular little story, then cumulatively we would certainly address diversity and cultural differences and racial differences and gender differences. But I will lay claim to the part of being a human being on this planet that I am the world expert on, and that is being me.