Noted: James Brown on memoir

James Brown, a creative writing teacher at Cal State-San Bernardino, is author of the celebrated 2003 memoir The Los Angeles Diaries, which was named a “Best Book of the Year” by Publishers Weekly. Brown’s new memoir, This River, is the occasion for an interview with Duff Brenna that appears in the current Writer’s Chronicle. Brown discusses his street-punk background, the “heartbreak and dysfunction” in his family, and the unsafe, outsider feeling that’s never left him.

Some excerpts:

In memoir, you write your own emotional truth, not necessarily anyone else’s, and trying to “get the facts right” by consulting with others may not be a great idea. If three people witness the same event, you can bet you’ll get three different interpretations, and pretty soon you might begin to question your own version. Slowly maybe, or quickly, doubt will set in, and then, if you attempt to incorporate others’ visions into your story, it won’t be yours anymore. My advice to the struggling memoirist is trust your memory, your vision, and recall events to the best of your abilities, authenticating the moment through visceral details, and in so doing recreate scenes, places, and people to make others feel what you felt at the time the experience occurred. . . .

Technique-wise, since I started out as a fiction writer, I have employed similar elements that go into the making of a story in memoir. I use scene. I use dialogue. I use character. I use setting, situation, and conflict. In this regard, fiction and memoir are alike, or can be. The difference isn’t so much in style as it is in content, whether you’re telling the truth to the best of your abilities, or imagining it from the ground up. Of course, there’s often a blending of the two, but that’s another story.

 It was nearly a decade between the time I published my last novel, Lucky Town, and my memoir, The Los Angeles Diaries. For most of those years I was too high and strung out to write. Alcohol and drugs strip you of your confidence, your self-esteem, and clearly your ambition. It wasn’t until I started on the road to getting clean and sober that I was even able to write again. It was an ugly climb out of the hole I’d dug for myself, and when I surfaced, I felt that if I were ever to move on, if were ever to write again, that I had to face the real story, the one I’d been avoiding by creating much of it as fiction. I knew I had to confront my past head-on. I should also admit that I was prompted to write a memoir because it was the only thing I was capable of writing at that point in my life. . . .

Ironically, I never planned to publish The Los Angeles Diaries. I really didn’t care about that. Publishing meant absolutely nothing to me at the time. All that mattered was that I try to make sense of my past, the suicides of my sister and brother, my mother’s insanity and cruelty, the emotional and financial destruction she caused my father, and the pain my addiction caused to those I loved most. I’m often asked if writing The Los Angeles Diaries was cathartic, but in many ways it was the exact opposite. In facing my demons, in recreating the events and memories I would’ve much rather have forgotten, I had to relive them. . . .

Reliving the darker parts of my life forced the memories into sharper focus, and that’s anything but therapeutic. But what the process did do for me, and this is important, is help me put into perspective the larger picture, one where, if only for moments, I can see myself as if from a distance. There I find some clarity. I’m just one in a cast of many.


Filed under honesty, memoir, NOTED

7 responses to “Noted: James Brown on memoir

  1. This is the clearest picture of what a memoir is!

  2. Thanks for this wonderful description, James, (and Richard for posting). Knowing the purpose of our memoir writing is terribly important, and I have the utmost respect for those who write first for themselves. Their voices ring so true. I am certain, just from reading this description of your process, that your writing has that ring.

    For myself the journey has been different, and thus the method differs also,.Many of the surprises I uncovered were only possible with elp from my mother and other relatives.

    Keeping everything in my voice, or deciding to incorporate other voices, does create a writing dilemma. This post helped me see that more clearly than ever. Thanks..

  3. Sorry for the typo’s above. Too much haste . . . Hope the thought comes through.

    • It did, Shirley, and thank you. The different processes and approaches we use reflect the diversity of being human, I think. A famous writer visited campus recently and repeatedly told our students to get in touch with their anger and to write from that power and that truth. That reflected her own traumatic background, and I think it helped some of our students to begin to know and to affirm their stories. But I happen to know that not all of our student artists, writers, and actors on my campus are angry or deeply wounded! A surprising number seem very happy and spiritual if not religious. And they can make art, too, with their own truths to offer. Some of the ones I know are going to go far, I am sure.

  4. Mr. Brown’s advice to the “struggling memoirist” is excellent.

    I have not read his first memoir, so did a double-take in reading that he has now written a second memoir. A sequel? Memoir is endlessly fascinating: what it is; when and how often it can be written; what goes too far or not far enough. How old do you have to be before writing memoir? When she was only 11, a granddaughter said to me, “I want to write a memoir of my childhood before I forget what happened.” I was moved by her clear-eyed, solemn face.

  5. Yvette

    I feel inspired by James’ words of advice for the memoirist. I’ve find myself using the same “accident” example when it comes to remembering specifics of the past. Regardless of what someone else might remember of the incidents, what I’ve held in my heart of memories is what I am writing. Thanks for the time to reflect!