Writing Lessons: Are There Rules for Writing Memoir?

Maria Mutch book coverImageARE THERE RULES FOR WRITING MEMOIR? For instance, can your story be enlarged by the story of someone else whose life parallels or informs your own? When Maria Mutch proposed this question as a Writing Lessons piece, I knew I had a fine writer on the line, and that I wanted to introduce you to her. The author of the remarkable memoir, Know the Night, Maria just learned that her book was named one of Oprah’s “Memoirs Too Powerful to Put Down.” For good reason. It is. Read on.



by Maria Mutch

Know the Night is about my son Gabriel who has Down syndrome and autism and developed a sleeping disorder at the age of nine. Woven into that is the story of the polar explorer Admiral Richard Byrd and his book, Alone, about his 1934 sojourn in Antarctica, as well as other threads such as jazz and the Myth of Sisyphus. I began writing with the notion that I was gathering a collection of essays, ones that would stand in relation to each other, but as time went on, I structured a continuous narrative that moved between the disparate ideas. The end result is a book called a memoir, but only if we allow that the category is malleable and capable of enlarging to include what is considered a hybrid form.

The Nighttime Experience

I began writing the book when I had been sleep deprived for close to two years and I wanted to convey the strange lushness of that period, how interesting it was and how lonely. In order to reflect the magical thinking that sleep deprivation had produced, I needed to embrace what were, on the surface, disparate connections. When my son was a toddler, he spoke and used sign language but ended up losing all of it by the age of seven; in Byrd’s book I found a very different but related narrative, one that felt familiar, as it had to do with night and the loss of language. Byrd was on his second expedition to Antarctica when he left his men to stay in a hut imbedded in the ice many miles away from them. His intention was to stay for six months to take meteorological data, but he only survived four months before needing to be rescued. He was in the hut during the part of the polar year when the sun doesn’t rise, which made him, in my eyes, something of an authority on night. Additionally, the only way for him to communicate with his men 123 miles away was by using Morse code. As the cold and carbon monoxide poisoning wore him down physically—and what amounted to solitary confinement addled his mind—his ability to communicate eroded. Examining Byrd’s narrative was a way for me to explore, beyond my observations of Gabriel, how language and communication act.

Enlarging Experience

Being awake with my son caused me to have an ongoing relationship with night, and to experience some of Gabriel’s autistic symptoms at very close range. It was Byrd’s experience of isolation and loss of language that caused me to see figurative parallels between his situation and Gabriel’s, but the vast differences in the narratives were also worth exploring. In jazz there is an appreciation for dissonance and a drive toward spontaneous musical investigations. I found that placing elements in somewhat close proximity (for instance, a scene where Gabriel and I listen to music and a scene where Byrd listens to Beethoven’s Fifth in Antarctica) creates a new kind of space in which surprising things happen. By using elements outside of my own story, I could move beyond the frame of that nighttime experience to a larger story about universal isolation


Another benefit of including Byrd’s story had to do with structure. One of the challenges I faced when writing about Gabriel was that our story involved shifts in time, intense emotions and the subjectivity of memory, all of which seemed unwieldy and nonlinear. Using Byrd’s story, which had the simple structure of a man waiting in a hut either to die or to be rescued, gave me something solid around which the more chaotic elements of Gabriel’s development could revolve. I could jump around in time, go off on various thought tangents, and always return to the linearity of Byrd’s expedition.


Threading the parts of the story was a lengthy exercise; I played with the different pieces for months and then years (the entire process from beginning to final edits was four years). During that time I read essays and books by some of my favorite combiners: Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Geoff Dyer, Lawrence Weschler, Susan Griffin.

Jazz was a natural element to wind through Know the Night, since Gabriel and I went to hear numerous jazz bands. I paid attention to the playfulness of the musicians’ improvising, and I researched jazz history, as well as polar exploration and Byrd. I ended up weaving in some of the story of Thelonious Monk, in part because of his tendency to fall silent for days at a time and to use pauses in his music. Improvising in my writing led to other “thought excursions” (to borrow from Philip Lopate) about Sisyphus, Van Gogh and trail running, and eventually I had a continuous narrative about the strange, difficult and sometimes wonderful experience of being awake at night with my son.

Know the Night, an excerpt

The looking glass hangs on a nail near a shelf and Byrd takes it down. It seems that he’s ready to see himself as he really is, in this poorly lit place where the shadows transform what is already liminal. The face that appears in his shaving mirror, however, is folding with age and weakness, and shows the spots the cold has eaten. He’s so disheartened by what he sees that he’ll have to answer another bout of mental disintegration with visions of being surrounded by sunlight and the people he loves. The following afternoon he’ll test his battery-powered radio and tune it to the weekly broadcast from Little America to the United States, so he can steady himself with distant voices. The men at Little America will tell the audience about the cows, named Klondike, Deerfoot, and Southern Girl, and the calf born on the journey named Iceberg, that were brought to the Ice to supply milk, how one of the cows won’t lie down and another refuses to get up. Byrd’s wife and children in Boston will have piled onto his bed at 9 Brimmer Street and tuned into the broadcast. The day after that, he’ll have a radio schedule with his men where he’ll stop himself from calling for help and he’ll contrive messages in his inept code to make it appear that all is more or less well. But at the moment, he is suspended in his little mirror, watching himself watching himself; he is turning in the vortices that layer Antarctica, a witness to being consumed.

Gabriel rarely watches himself. He only catches glimpses. Like our cat, he’ll often smoothly avert his gaze when he’s standing in front of a mirror, not as if he’s afraid to see himself but as if he has no curiosity about how he appears in the glass nor interest that there is a glass at all. Then again, maybe he understands the power of the other self, and like Byrd would prefer not to see the one that is darker and harder to grasp.

He discovered his shadow when he was two and a half and still fairly new to walking. He had a wide, uneasy stance and his hands out at his sides, swiping the air for balance. I had taken him to a neighborhood park, and he lurched over the grass toward the sand. Though he still had some of his words and signs, the long slow diaspora having just begun, he was quiet and focusing his attention on the ground. When he reached the pale sand, the dark slice of him was sharpened and he stopped. Looked, moved. Looked. Moved again.

He stared at the ground, at the boy whose legs stretched like ribbons from his feet. He watched how the shadow mimicked, thinly but precisely, the aspect of the lit world that was him. He looked like he couldn’t get over it.

Author’s bio

Maria Mutch, who lives in Rhode Island, was born and raised in Canada, and has a degree in visual art. Her essays and fiction have appeared in Poets & Writers, Guernica, Necessary Fiction, Fiction Writers Review, Ocean State Review, Bayou Magazine and Literary Mama, among others. Know the Night was just one of its Memoirs Too Powerful to Put Down by Oprah’s online site. Know the Night, published by Simon & Schuster, is her first book.


  1. says

    I love this approach. Life isn’t just a set of movements in the present. It intertwines with thoughts of the past and future. Maria has captured that perfectly and makes it look effortless. Thank you both.

    • Maria Mutch says

      Thank you, Debra–that’s so true about how we process life: past, present and future all at once.

  2. Elizabeth Racicot says

    One of the most interesting ways of weaving together a memoir that I’ve read. And gorgeous writing. And compelling stories. Thank you for sharing your insights. I look forward to reading this memoir.

  3. Casey Mulligan Walsh says

    How intriguing to read of another view of memoir, one that allows the writer to observe others’ lives and experiences as they parallel – or contradict – her own. As a memoirist as well as a professional who has worked, at times, with children who have autism, I am both fascinated by and eager to read this work.

  4. says

    What wonderful writing! I’m fascinated by the way you have combined stories with yours. Thanks so much for sharing. I am excited to find this book! Best of luck with your son; it sounds hard and life-changing and deep…

  5. says

    How intriguing! Your writing is mesmerizing, and I think this is so because you have woven threads created years apart in different yet similar stories together in such a way that your reader sees how you are equipping yourself to understand your son’s very present world. Kudos to you on what appears to be a fine work. Look forward to reading it.

    • Maria Mutch says

      Sherrey, I like your phrase “very present world.” I think you just hit on something about my son, that he is always in the now. Thanks very much!

  6. says

    Thank you so much for writing this book. I really appreciate what you say about memoirists telling the truth as they see it, as well as you’re very practial guidelines for how to write memoir. In addition to being an enjoyable read, the book inspired me to try writing memoir.

    I do have a question, after attempting to apply your methodology. I am a bit confused however as to when and how you figure out what the story is about. In writing my initial vomit drafts, it seems like any one incident, as you suggest many threads and possible themes. I am finding that after the initial vomit draft, I am left with lots of possibilities and though I could pick one and apply your algorithm, I have the sense that the initial one I pick, not be the best or richest. You mention that you have to write about something in order to know what you think, and that is true for me, as well, and one vomit draft seems like it is the beginning of a long process. So my question for you is, how do you hone in on what the essay is about? I have made the mistake of generating a lot, too much material in an effort to find the argument. It seems that the steps for editing would work and you can deepen and eliminate what’s not necessary once you know what you are going for, but between the first draft and this step, I am not sured quite how to get there. Do you do a number of drafts before you discover what the essay is about? I know you mentioned you do multiple drafts, but it seemed you did them once you knew what they essay was about. How have you or your students gone about finding the argument around which everything else in the essay turns?


    • says

      Hi, Suzanne:
      Sometimes you know what you want to write about because a high emotional holy day — July 4th, for instance — is coming up, and you want to write a radio essay. Using that date, maybe you’d like to explore patriotism, for instance.
      Maybe you’ve wondered about something — forgiveness, for instance — and you’d really like to explore it. So think hard. Have you got a personal tale that illustrates forgiveness? Write it.
      Knowing what it is about and what it is you are arguing is the key to others understanding the piece.
      Sometimes writing a scene will reveal to you what it is about.
      After that, the question is to identify what you are arguing. Are you arguing that forgiveness is never really possible, or possible only under certain circumstances, or that patriotism is not a single issue but more a delicatessen plan that we choose from throughout life? What are you arguing. Know what it is about and you’ll build your argument better.

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