A Few Do’s & Don’ts of Writing Memoir
This summer I’m traveling around promoting my new spiritual memoir, The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail. (As much as any mom of 3 elementary-school aged kids can “travel around”) Folks have gathered in living rooms, church fellowship halls, and even the occasional hip urban art gallery to snack and listen politely. Typically I’ll read four or five excerpts and then open it up for questions. I let the audience know that the life, the book, and the writing are all fair game.
Inevitably, a tentative hand goes up. It might not be the first hand, but before the evening ends, the hand will rise. The mouth that goes with the hand will ask, “So…how’s your family doing with it?” The asker wants to know how the people I’ve described in the book have responded to its publication. She realizes that unless a writer grew up in isolation…on Jupiter…a memoirist inevitably ends up narrating the stories of those around her. This, of course, can be terribly dicey business.
I’m grateful to report that though I did dodge a bullet with the “potentially-enraged-family-member-situation,” I can’t take credit for it. Long before I wrote The Girl in the Orange Dress, I was noticing the experience of memoirists who’d gone before me.
In the hopes of being useful to you on your journey, here are a few things I’ve learned on mine…
People: Don’t Overexpose Others
At the Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing, 2006, I attended a panel discussion with three memoirists. One had shared the memoir with those mentioned in the book as he wrote. There was no exciting “reveal” upon publication, but there also weren’t any big surprises for his loved ones. Another panel member, who’d “converted” from the faith of his family to a radically different expression of Christian faith, went the “big reveal” route. Sadly, this turned out to be quite damaging to his relationships. So the moment I finished my first draft, I ran it past the six eyes that mattered most to me. Two of these folks were pleased/relieved and the other made some valid points which I was ultimately able to incorporate.
Pain: Don’t Be Whiny
As the protagonist in your own story, you want the reader to be for you. From my experience parenting the aforementioned young un’s, fussing isn’t necessarily conducive to that. I am much more likely to respond sympathetically to a child who’s just had a flatulent explode in her face (after I finish laughing) if I witness it than if I hear the whiny report. In memoir, whining is “telling” your pain. You want to “show.”
Picking Language: Don’t Overdo the Christian Jargon
As I wrote, I had it in my mind that I wanted my Christian readers to be able to—and want to—hand the book to a non-Christian friend or relative. Although they might actually have done that if I’d used Christianese language to detail “grieving the Spirit” in my “walk with the Lord,” I doubt the curious friends and relatives would have hung on for long. Warning: Those of us who are pretty “churchified” often don’t even hear the degree to which we use religious language. Get a reader who can sniff it out for you.
Protection: Do Be Wise & Gentle With the Stories of Others
When Jesus told his followers to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves, I’m pretty sure he was thinking about memoir. Your cutting edge is to tell the truth in love. Convincing your brother to sign a release form for your publisher is one thing, but honoring and preserving the relationship is a whole other deal. Be generous to those about whom you write. A rule of thumb I tried to use as I was writing was, “Could the person about whom I’m writing feel good about handing this book to her next-door neighbor?”
Pathos: Do Give “Just Enough” Tragedy
Have you read The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls? If you haven’t, please do so immediately. Though Walls’ childhood was filled with more chaos and uncertainty than any child should have to face, her matter-of-fact telling allows the reader to be outraged on her behalf. Rather than detailing injury after injury, giving the reader “just enough” leaves more room for her to identify with you.
Point: Stay Focused on a Single Theme
No matter how fascinating your life has been, your memoir isn’t an autobiography. Share the experiences that contribute to the particular arc of your story. A temptation I faced was to include some of my favorite experiences – even when they didn’t add to the Father-thread holding the book together. (So hooray for wise editors!) In the end, the book was much tighter, and more meaningful to readers, than it would have been if I’d included the gratuitous stories.
Palatability: Do Employ Humor
Honestly, if I had to read my own story stripped of the humor, I doubt I’d have the will to press on—even though the book would have been pared down to just three thin pages. I don’t mean “wear a clown face and pretend like everything is hunky dory.” (Been there, done that, don’t recommend it.) You give your readers a gift, especially when the story is a hard one, by lubricating it with a touch of humor.
And the last one is so big, it doesn’t even have to start with a “P”….
Authenticity: Do Be “Real”
Readers want to know they’re not alone. Even if your story is wildly unique—which of course it is—readers will resonate with an author who’s willing to be honest about his or her struggles and broken places. Allow your readers to identify with you by letting them peek behind the curtain at what’s going on inside of you. (But don’t just tell them, show them. Duh.)
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Margot Starbuck is a WordServe client, writer and speaker living in Durham, NC. Learn more about Margot, and hear what readers are saying about the book, at http://www.margotstarbuck.com/.