Writing compelling memoir: enough about you; what about me?

Yes, I promise: I WILL begin my long-anticipated series on pitching your work very soon. Tomorrow, in fact, if all goes according to plan. But before I wrapped up perspective for the nonce, I wanted to address a couple of questions reader Susan asked a couple of weeks back:

I know the current series re passivity pertains to fiction, but I wonder if you might offer some observations about memoir… I understand the reflective narrator is an important part of memoir, but I’m worried she may be too prominent in my MS. Any thoughts about how to reign her in? Must every scene be an action scene? Obviously, the reality of what happened shapes what is possible.

Another memoir question — with apologies for going off-topic: how critical is a well-defined narrative arc? Do all memoirs require this?

Actually, glancing back over my masses of posts, I’m rather surprised at just how few of them deal with memoir directly. So while these questions really would take a week to answer properly, instead of pushing them back until after the pitching series, I’m going to take a day to deal with them at least in passing now.

Why is it surprising that I haven’t written more on memoir, you ask? Almost all writers write about their lives at one time or another, and I’m no exception: I won a major award for IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, the first draft of my memoir-still-in-publishing-limbo, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK. (The limbo part is a long story, with its own category at right, if you’re interested. If not, the short-short version: publishers fear the unsubstantiated opinions of people with gobs and gobs of money.) And my agent is currently circulating the proposal for a memoir I’m co-writing with an environmental and civil rights whistleblower.

Oh, and I edit memoirs all the time. I am, in short, up to my eyeballs in memoir.

So why do I so seldom write about it here? Well, at first, to be quite frank, I was trying valiantly not to whine about what was going on with A FAMILY DARKLY; I started blogging within a week of the first lawsuit threat, and my publisher told me to keep quiet about the details.

(Of the juicy and vitriol-stained variety. But I’m not supposed to talk about that.)

But beyond that, I think it’s more dangerous to generalize about memoir than about most types of writing. Writers tend to be touchier about their autobiographical efforts, for one thing, even at the sentence level. But beyond that, so much of what one might say about memoir seems at first blush self-evident: it’s a first-person narrative, and most definitely an application of the time-honored axiom to Write What You Know.

Which leads to the single biggest problem memoir manuscripts typically have: anecdotalism.

All too often, the author will have apparently told the story on the page so often that the print version carries the vagueness of a verbal telling, as if the reader were a friend who has heard the story ten or twelve times before and might interrupt this particular rendition. Or assumes, incorrectly, that the reader will already be familiar enough with the circumstances of the author’s life for only a brief sketch to be necessary.

But for a memoir to be a success, it’s not enough that the events on the page really happened, or even that the writing is beautiful, right? It must above all things be a good STORY well told, and its actors great CHARACTERS well developed.

Which means — to take Susan’s second question first — that the story arc is quite important. And, as she so rightly points out, that can be genuinely difficult to pull off, at least if you happen to believe that time runs in a linear direction: in real life, stories seldom have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Often, too, actual events crawl precisely where a reader would most like them to speed.

From a reader’s perspective, both phenomena are problematic: even if the writing is gorgeous, most readers want to be able to try to second-guess where a plot is going to go. The reader wants to be entertained, and frankly, given a choice between hearing the precise truth and a more entertaining spin, he’ll usually punk down the dosh for the more exciting version. Human nature, I’m afraid.

That doesn’t mean that the memoirist should lie to create excitement on the page — but it does mean that it pays to be selective about what should and should not be included. There’s a big difference, after all, between a diary, a journal, and a memoir: a diary chronicles quotidian happenings, a journal analyzes them — and a memoir transforms them into a great yarn.

In this very tight memoir market, you really do want to be telling a great yarn — and it’s awfully hard to construct a gripping tale without ongoing incident. Put another way, if a narrative rambles on for too long without dramatically-satisfying crises and resolutions throughout, how is the reader supposed to cheer for the protagonist? “Go, Betty! Keep on surviving!”

Frankly, unless Betty’s life was pretty vivid — as in Anne Frank-level trauma or Augustin Burroughs-level weirdness — it’s unlikely that a mere selection of episodes is automatically going to elicit the “I’m rooting for you!” response in the reader. But if Betty is an interesting character in an interesting situation, learning and growing throughout the course of the book, it’s easier to identify with her story. Particularly if she’s constantly struggling in small ways; rather than being passive.

And that, my friends, is a workable story arc, one that does not involve lying about actual events. The protagonist does not need to revolutionize the world around her in order to keep surprising the reader by how she interacts with it. Resistance can come in some pretty microscopic forms; the only completely passive person in real life is one who never questions the status quo at all.

For a brilliant example of this difficult challenge pulled off with grace, run, don’t walk to your nearest bookstore and pick up a copy of Barbara Robinette Moss’ CHANGE ME INTO ZEUS’ DAUGHTER. This is the book that made me want to write memoir in the first place: the writing is breathtaking, and she welds a soaring dramatic arc out of a collection of recollections that could very easily been simply depressing. She draws her own personality against genuinely overwhelming situations so well that it left me gasping.

Bear in mind, though, that the most compelling way to tell your own story may well not be the way you are accustomed to telling it. In constructing a memoir’s narrative, I find it very helpful to think about the memoir from our pal Millicent the agency screener’s perspective: how would I market this story to someone wandering through a bookstore? What is unique about it? What makes this story fascinating?

A surprisingly high percentage of memoir-writers don’t seem to regard themselves as very interesting; even more seem to be afraid of presenting themselves as fully-rounded characters, proverbial warts and all. Often, this seems to stem from a fear of reader reaction: am I coming across as likeable?

This can be a pretty loaded question, particularly for that large majority of memoirists who imagine their nearest and dearest as their target audiences. Or, if not their kith and kin, then the good people who will take their side AGAINST their kith and kin, which is another way of concentrating upon the reactions of the people already in one’s life.

This is perfectly understandable — after all, writing memoir means exposing one’s innermost thoughts and feelings. Most of us long for the day that our beloveds read our beautiful prose, strike tears from their eyes, and say, “Wow, babe, touché. I had no idea you felt like that. You are much deeper/more wonderful/in desperate need of help than I had ever dreamt.”

However, if you’re going to make a living as a writer, your buddies/lovers/relatives are not your sole audience, or even your primary one. Total strangers are going to need to find your story fascinating — and for it to sell to an agent or editor, that story had better start being interesting on page 1. Actually, it needs to be interesting before page one, as memoirs are generally sold in proposal form, not as entire books. This means that, generally speaking, the memoirist has only a chapter, or at most two, to grab the professional reader.

So what would make the story fascinating from Millicent’s point of view? A great story well-told, of course, with well-drawn characters — and a compelling protagonist who engages with the world around her, rather than just observing it.

Which brings me back to Susan’s first question, how to get the narrative out of the protagonist’s head: when a section gets too think-y, experiment with telling the story as though it were a novel. Concentrating on the story in which the memoirist is a character, rather than primarily upon the narrator’s reactions, can often make a real-life scene spring to life.

Step back and envision the scene as though you were not an actor in it. Who are these characters? What are the ambient conflicts? Where is this story going, and how does what is happening in the moment help get the protagonist/narrator there?

If none of these questions yield interesting answers on any given page, chances are good that the narrative is telling the story, rather than showing it, an extremely common pitfall for memoirs. Remember, the reader doesn’t know ANYTHING about the life you’re describing unless you illustrate it, and it’s the writer’s job in any kind of book to make the characters live and breathe.

So paint as full a picture as possible. Is there a way that you could flesh out a particular incident, or a character within that incident, to make it better-rounded? Are you streamlining the story to make the protagonist look better — or worse — and if so, is it flattening out the drama?

If you can honestly look at a page of text and say that it is neither telling part of the ongoing story nor developing character, I would ask you to be very brave. Gird your loins, take up the manuscript, and bracket the text that does not advance the story. Then go back a page or two and read, skipping the bracketed part.

Did the narrative make sense without it? If so, could the bracketed section be cut?

Another useful means of getting the narrative out of the narrator’s head is to sharpen the focus upon important elements of the story OUTSIDE of the protagonist. What is your story about, other than you, and how can you make it fascinating to the reader?

Yes, yes, I know — memoirs are inherently about their authors, by definition. Yet realistically, only celebrities’ memoirs sell PURELY because they’re about a particular person’s life. Think like a marketer for a moment: other than the truth of the story, what is unique about this book?

Writers don’t ask this question very often before they start jotting down the stories of their lives, but almost without exception, memoirs are about something else as well. The dying mill town where the author grew up; the traveling circus that captured his imagination; the kind aunt who went into the hospital for a hip replacement and came out with a lobotomy. All of these are rich material for grabbing the reader.

Chances are, this secondary focus is already in the book; are there ways that you could bring it out? Specifically, are there parts of the narrative where playing up this other element would take the reader out of the narrator’s head and into the larger world of the book?

Just as every life is unique, so is every memoir. But a life story needs more than truth and bravery to make a good memoir; if that were all it took, there would be no artistry involved. A great memoirist picks through her memories, selecting the juiciest moments, most telling incidents, and most compelling characters. She spins a web of enchantment, as surely as any fictional storyteller does.

It’s your story: make it shine. And, as always, keep up the good work!

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