AH, THE NEW YEAR. The perfect time to begin again. I can almost hear the fresh Word documents being opened, the cuffs being rolled up and the sudden urge to clean the kitchen take over. Not so fast. The kitchen can wait. Stay where you are. I have the help you need to get you to work.
I’m sure you noticed all those year-end roundups in the press, online, on your Facebook pages, and elsewhere. All those best-of, worst-of lists for 2012. Well, I’ve got a list of my own, and it’s what I learned in 2012 from reading other people’s work, writing my own and pondering how to make memoir better – yours, mine and all of ours.
To date, here’s what I’ve got.
- Play against the expectations of the piece
- Never defer when you can consider
- Bring original thought to household moments
- Explore annotation versus inheritance versus original thought
- Look out your front door
- Change the phrase from “my memoir” to “memoir”
- Get in over your head
- Forget the sequel
Let me explain each in a few sentences.
Play against the expectation of a piece
I found this idea in Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon’s chewy new novel. Tucked into a line about playing against life’s expectations, this applies to memoir, as well. Take us somewhere unexpected. Let’s say the piece is about disappointment. Don’t just give us a litany of your hurts. Instead, consider sinking into that strangely, deep – and utterly harmful – sweet feeling of satisfaction that envelopes us when someone we always knew would let us down, lets us down.
Never defer when you can consider
This comes from a recent reading of a manuscript by an otherwise fine writer. Don’t just reuse standardized, clichéd responses – i.e., “I saw red;” “My heart pounded in my throat.” Instead, make these moments uniquely yours. How? Ponder them. Teach us something about your terror about putting your mother in the nursing home, your joy at seeing your child up on stage at the piano recital, the act of marital pantomime when slapping on your happy face while opening yet another gift shirt that will not fit.
Bring original thought to household moments
This came to me in my own kitchen while doing some Christmas cooking. I opened my recipe files and was suddenly surrounded by all the dead women whose recipes I was using. I sold an essay to NPR’s All Things Considered the last time this happened, so I am fairly sure this way of thinking has merit. How many dead and gone women were in the kitchen with you recently? What is it about laundry that the very act of hearing the washer running bestows the appearance of controlled calm?
Explore annotation vs. inheritance vs. original thought
I scribbled this down one night in class. Let me explain. Annotation is merely telling me what you did. It’s not memoir, and it’s not good writing. Inheritance are those ideas we bring from home – political, religious, Thanksgiving traditions. And then there is original thought. Truly think about this, and then consider whether you’d prefer to write a memoir that is purely genealogical in nature, merely repeats what you’ve been taught to think, or is provoked by some new, fresh and unique intuition.
Look out your front door
Opening my front door recently, I glimpsed my beautiful, elderly neighbor on her daily walk. The epitome of pulled-togetherness, her winter scarf picked up a color in her socks; her beret was the exact shade of her boots. Looking down at the riot of mismatched colors I had thrown on, I teetered around the gaping maw of insecurity, trying not to topple in. Use the smallest of lenses when writing memoir. Glimpses are all you need. Small shots. Use ‘em.
Change the phrase from “my memoir” to memoir
This one comes from all the people who say “I am writing my memoirs.” My advice is to stop thinking about writing one big book and think instead of short, revelatory pieces. “My memoir” allows for too much filler. Write each scene like it’s got to thrive on its own. Connect it later. Or not.
Get in over your head
Read over your head, think over your head and research over your head. Stop reading memoir that’s like the one you’re writing. Read theater reviews, whose language is of what plays are about and not merely what happens on stage. Dig deep while pondering your feelings. And please check your facts at a reputable source.
Forget the sequel
If you’ve ever heard that 70’s song, “One Toke Over the Line,” you know how I felt when the most recent of the many people who have said this, said this, when asked why certain facts were not included in a book length manuscript: “Oh, that’s for the sequel.” Perhaps the most dangerous place that long-form memoir writers live in is this particular fantasy cave. Your life has many stories, many areas of expertise, and yes, you can write more than one memoir, but each must be from one separate area of your expertise. Saving material means you are not now making the hard choices about your story. Go on, make the hard choices.
That’s what I learned about writing memoir in 2012.