LEARNING HOW TO WRITE MEMOIR begins with knowing what to read. And specifically, this means reading really well, since reading bad memoir won’t help you a bit. But I also strongly suggest reading fiction and interviews, as well as reviews, especially good critics on television, movies and theater — you know, those people you see at the theater with the reporter’s notebook in their laps. You might wonder why I emphasize the last items – the reviews. Why? Because in any good critique of art will include a discussion of “What is this about?” that dreaded question all editors ask of their writers, all writing coaches ask of their clients, and all writing teachers ask of their students.
How to Get Great Fast
Learning to transpose your work to a higher key is possible. In fact, it’s the goal, right? That’s what answering that question affords you – the chance to get great fast. Knowing what the piece is about wrestles it immediately out of being a mere diary entry and into the marvelous world of memoir writing. You see, most people think that writing memoir is writing about themselves. Most people are wrong.
Writing memoir is about exploring the universal through the deeply personal. To do so your work must be about something other than you. In fact, you are illustration of that bigger idea. That’s how it works. But what is that big idea, and just how does one go about getting one?
Let me give you an example from a recent piece of criticism I read.
Where to Find Good Criticism
A recent New Yorker piece by the great, Pulitzer prize-winning critic, Emily Nussbaum, explains why the new HBO series, Big Little Lies, is absolutely worth your time, and does so via the answer to what its about. In the piece Nussbaum tells the reader the the show explores the danger of shared mythology in marriage. Wow, I thought as I read it. I get that. I wasn’t going to watch the series. Now, I’m hooked, in no small part because Nussbaum gave me this lens through which to view it.
That’s the same assignment you have in the set up for your work. You first place the lens on the end of my nose through which you want me to read your work, and then go on to focus and refocus your words, sentences and paragraphs on and around the answer to “What is this about?”
By the way, why wasn’t I going to watch that HBO series? Back in November, having only seen the trailer, Emily Nussbaum had tweeted this, stating she had no idea what the series was about. Hmm, I thought, that’s not a good sign. She has changed her point of view and, as a result, so have I. I’m fascinated by what it’s about, so much so, I’m recommending it to you.
But let’s not miss my point here, which is that critics will send you back to your writing desk, guiding you, reminding you that knowing what your piece is about is essential to someone else reading, understanding and enjoying it.
How to Know What Your Piece is About
So how do you figure that out? How do you know what your piece is about? You start with the event itself, asking yourself what happened. What was the human transaction that took place? What exchange was made between the people involved, or you and your garden, that tree in your back yard, the piano piece you just learned or the goal you just achieved. What just transpired?
I’m not asking for the plot here. Nope, not that. That’s the story you’ll write. But what does the plot illustrate? Is it a story about grief? Okay, then what about grief are you saying? What about grief do you know and are willing to share with us, your eager readers? For instance, can you slice down the idea of grief even further so someone can examine closely the idea that grief is a process that must be experienced slowly or else you are destined to stay in it forever?
Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Now What? What to Read to Learn To Write Memoir
So, after reading a good critic or two every week, what else should you read to write memoir?
So glad you asked.
I’ve been keeping a suggested reading list for many years and I’ve just made it into a page you can peruse and click around on to guide you through. Have a look. And I like the idea so much I’ve made it into a rotator here on the page. See it? It’s in the upper right hand corner. Play around with it. Have some fun. But read. Then write. It’s the best education I know for learning to write memoir.
Want to know more about how to write memoir? Come see me in one of my live, online memoir classes. There are four, in all, and they allow you to progress nicely through the process to publication. Let me teach you that I know.