Friday, January 14, 2011
ON THE WAY TO MEMOIR
When I first started writing fiction I didn’t know any other writers and I didn’t know of any writers groups or organizations. I’d never taken a creative writing class, and I’d never read a book about writing. As far as education went, I managed to finish high school. That was it. So I pretty much taught myself to write. Well, I’m sure all of the books I’d read up until that point taught me to write. What I did was I wrote until something looked right and felt right. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I seemed to have some instinct about the process. But it involved a lot of trial and error. Write something, come back, throw it out or pat myself on the back. Repeat. Writing the memoir reminded me of those early days of writing, because once again I had to teach myself something completely new and it took a lot of trial and error.
I’m not advising this route. If I’d gone to college, if I’d taken writing classes, I would have gotten from there to hear a helluva lot faster. But I do think my stumbling around in the dark may have helped in some odd way. Like maybe helped me find my own voice. Or not. I’m now working on a second memoir, and this second time around is a lot easier because I’ve learned some basics.
What I learned when writing memoir #1:
Don’t throw everything in the pot. I thought I needed to tell everything because I was writing nonfiction. No. It’s okay to leave things out even when dealing with a single event. In fact, it’s often necessary. This isn’t an autobiography, it’s a memoir. A slice of life. If something doesn’t fit the theme and the trajectory, it doesn’t belong.
It’s okay to focus on one or two emotions. Events have a lot of moods and emotions to them, and at first I tried to tell them all. This diluted the story. I finally came to realize that I had to focus on one or two things and forget the rest.
Focus on a few character traits. Just like fiction, you want to define your characters clearly, and if you focus on too many conflicting traits it confuses the reader. Most people are bad and good, but it’s very hard to portray that kind of character depth. I would run into situations and scenes where a person might be an asshole one day and an angel the next. Or even an asshole and angel in the same scene. People are like that. But when writing a condensed version of an event, I had to decide which part of that person I wanted to portray in that particular scene. Hero or coward, angel or devil.
You can’t tell it all. If you do, you begin to sound like some gossip or some kid standing in front of class giving a book report. And then this happened, and then this happened. Oh, but wait. Offstage this was taking place, which led to this and led to this and led to this.
Memoir should be a piece of beautiful art. It’s that one photo that perfectly captures the mood of the day. It’s a painting that reflects the color of life at that particular moment. It’s a single blue egg in a nest. It’s a dirt road on a hot summer day. It’s a desert sky, or the haze over a field of corn.
You are an important part of the story. This is a big one. I thought I was the lens, but I finally came to realize that people want to experience what I experienced. That’s why they’re reading a memoir. Don’t leave yourself out of the story.
I learned a lot more, but that’s all for now.