Daily Archives: May 13, 2012

There’s something about memoir

. . . and what writers rarely admit about rejection & revision

I have a lot of friends who are fiction writers, and they all told me that writing a memoir is different—and hard.—Darin Strauss, in The Washington Post

Darin Strauss became a memoirist with Half a Life, reviewed here, after publishing three acclaimed novels. I came across his admission above just after a scholar/essayist/travel writer who was visiting our campus told me, when she heard I was writing a memoir, “Memoir seems really hard for some reason. I had two friends start them and give up. They went back to writing fiction.”

I don’t think memoirs are harder to write than fiction. They’re kin to novels, but escape a novelist’s first monumental task: picking a point of view. All the same, for fiction writers, a memoir would be a new learning curve—probably also steepest because of point of view. That seems a given in memoirs, who is telling the story, but it isn’t, at least in terms of the writer’s persona. Sure it’s you, but which one? Where does s/he stand in relation to the story? How does the writer now make sense of the action then? What else besides the foreground story is going on with the narrator? (These are all just ways of asking, Who is telling this story? That question seems all-important in memoir.)

No wonder, as I’ve struggled to get this right myself, I’ve written so much here about persona in nonfiction. No wonder there’s a craft panel on this every year at AWP. The narrator must let readers in, seduce them, confide in them, treat them as friends. But ask nothing from them except that they keep turning the page. He, in my case, must know more than the earlier version of him who’s staggering through the life depicted. I think we desire a wiser narrator because we evolved not only to receive meaning in stories, we evolved to expect a survivor with perspective to tell about the hunt or the battle.

Washington Post writer Ron Charles, who caught Strauss’s admission about memoir’s difficulty for his fiction-writing friends, also wrote down Strauss’s elaboration:

     He offered a simple rule to the MFA students in the room: “If you’re writing a memoir, don’t say, ‘I.’ Say ‘she.’ You’ll have a much clearer sense of the character. When you say ‘I,’ you’re defensive. When you say ‘she,’ you’re more objective. The problem with too many memoirs is that you can feel the author trying to forgive himself in every paragraph.”

 (This surely is wise advice for achieving narrative distance, though presumably the writer goes back and changes everything to first-person viewpoint—not an inviolable rule for memoir but close to it, for practical purposes).

So . . . there’s something specifically hard about memoir that has to do with the closeness of the writer to her material, which is an aspect of herself. But an age-old writing issue also applies: a writer can think his book or essay or story is working when it isn’t, not yet.

We all know the story about scorned writerly brilliance. We’ve always heard it about novels and now we hear it about memoirs: the writer pounds out her guts at the keyboard; she writes a masterpiece and the world rejects it. Over and over! She persists in sending it back out, though, and after sixty-seven brutal refusals an editor or agent finally gets it. Finally. What’s seldom mentioned in such a scenario is how s/he kept working on the book after each rejection. Making it better, making it different. The book or story that finally was accepted and published—after more revisions—wasn’t what s/he started pitching an eon ago. When s/he thought it was ready. But it wasn’t.

I think this is true for others because it’s been true for me—but I am a slow learner and stubbornly capable of not hearing good advice the first (or second) time. Wiser writers than I who lack experience in a new genre vet their narratives with writer friends or in workshops. Some pros, no doubt, can smell insufficiency in their own work. I suspect that most of them, however, also air such doubts with their tough writing posse. But writing is so strange, a black art, that the tendency of friends is to urge you on. Anyway, in the end, each writer labors alone.

Poet Mary Karr has said her remarkable bestselling memoir Lit, reviewed here, took seven long years to gel. This was despite her having written two previous celebrated memoirs, The Liar’s Club and Cherry. The reason, she said, was because she kept trying to get her account of her marriage and divorce to feel right. She threw away 500 pages in which her ex-husband was an angel and as many again in which she was the wretch. Finally she hit her balance.

Each type of book, and surely each book, has its own challenges. The learning curve is a big U, after all. Our performance goes way down before it rises when we tackle something big and new. And any book is big and new. It is, in fact, novel. The difficulty of getting a book right may be why being “an author” still means something.

Whether the writer is getting rejected and keeps rewriting, or has the insight to plug away in silence, like Karr, until the manuscript is truly ready, sticking with it is called “learning to love the process.” Karr, speaking for herself, was less sunny: “It was so horrible.”

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, fiction, memoir, MFA, Persona, Voice, POV, revision