Writing the Literary Memoir
When you set out to write about yourself, you'd better
to say... and have the confidence to say it!
by D. J. Herda
Of all the subjects available to you as a
writer, the one you know best is yourself: your past and your present, your
thoughts and emotions, you strengths and your weaknesses. Yet, "you"
is very likely the subject you try hardest to avoid writing about.
Well, nobody knows for sure, of course. But the pros would make book
that you simply don't have the courage. Writing about yourself takes
tremendous chutzpah on two counts. First, you need to have the
confidence to give yourself permission--the "right"--to do something so
"egotistical" as writing about yourself. Second, you need to be able
to take the heat resulting from your decision.
The first obstacle to overcoming the "you"
factor is simple enough. You're a writer, and your job is to write
about what you know. You know yourself better than anyone else on
earth (assuming you're not schizophrenic). Therefore, you have the
right--bordering on an obligation--to write about you. (Sort of a
warped take-off on Kirkegaard ... "I think, therefore I am a writer.")
The second obstacle is less subject to
rationale. Either you have enough intestinal fortitude to expose
yourself, your thoughts, your desires, your innermost you to the world,
regardless of what the world may think, or you haven't. If you fall
into the latter group, nothing I can say is going to make you write a
memoir. But if you fall into the former, here are some tips to help
you get that memoir off and running on the right foot.
1.) Recognize that, along with
having the "right" to write about yourself comes the responsibility to do it
properly. You absolutely may not write poorly or incorrectly.
Few readers have the patience for slopping workmanship or lazy crafting,
particularly as they pertain to a writer's own memoirs. If you're not
a good enough writer to make a good enough showing, take lessons, and
practice, practice, practice.
2.) Forget about writing for an audience.
The non-fiction memoir is literary in nature, not genre-driven. By
that I mean its goal is to flesh out the meanings, the makeup of the people
about whom you write (numero uno being you, of course). If you
try to satisfy your audience by gearing your writing toward them, as you
might a detective or romance or sci-fi novel, you're going to get screwed.
Memoir readers read memoirs to learn something about someone that they never
knew before. The only way you can give your readers what they want is
to write from your psyche, from your perspective, from the inside-out.
If you end up writing for your reader or for an editor, you'll end up not
writing anything of merit for anybody. If you write for
yourself, you'll reach the people you want to reach--the memoir readers.
3.) Writing a successful memoir is
directly proportionate to one's age. I don't care how exciting a life
even the most extraordinary 14-year-old has lived, it isn't varied or deep
enough to hold an audience of one past page 17. What reader, really,
wants to read about the school sock hop or that weekend's basketball game?
Of course, that doesn't mean that young
writers shouldn't write memoirs--or at least attempt to do so. At any
age, the creative act of writing is a powerful psychoanalytical tool that
often sheds light on the depth and nature of one's desire to write and the
ability--or lack thereof--one possesses toward reaching that goal.
Thinking in terms of memoir--reaching back to recall something that happened
last year, last decade, and remembering the feelings created by the event,
the triggers that unleashed them--is a tool one develops more fully in time.
Once learned, its mechanisms will pop up at the most remarkable of moments.
A free-reigning memory is almost always good for material when all other
avenues fail you.
Working once on a literary mystery
entitled The Death and Life of Hymie Stiehl, I had just entered a
passage where the protagonist (ostensibly moi) had made arrangements
to have his friend, Hymie Stiehl, interred. While going over the
last-minute details with the funeral director, Mr. Elgars, something struck
me. And out it came poring--the memories of Aunt Mary. And into
the book they went:
I looked at the man [Mr. Elgars]
standing next to me more carefully now. His eyebrows were thin and
weak, his lips practically nonexistent, if present at all. He wore a
white shirt with a tattered collar held in place by a silver-studded pin
and a tie the color of the sea on a moonless night. In his lapel, a
carnation carried the smell of death. I know. I had smelled it
once before, on my Aunt Mary--fat Mary, they called her—at her wake.
One of the reasons she was so fat, of
course, was that she ate like a pig. And not just ordinary food.
Oh, no. Being of Italian-Polish descent, she ate gnocci and
sauerkraut, pigs' feet and cacciatore as if it were going out of
style. She had the same smell about her as Elgars, even as she lay
in the casket, peering up at me through sealed lids.
Fat Mary had always liked me, I guessed
because I had been scared to death to go near her when I was a child and
had to be dragged to her home to visit, kicking and screaming, by my
parents. Inside, she would lure me with pleasant talk of beautiful
young children with wholly beguiling manners and wait until I was within
striking distance. Then, from her straight-backed chair set to one
side of the kitchen table, she would lunge at me with those two stumpy
tentacles and snag me, unsuspecting and amazed that anyone so large could
move with such grace and alacrity. Once she had snared me, she would
reel me in, her prized catch of the day, and breathe that awful breath on
me, all the while squeezing me until I was sure the eyeballs would pop
right out of my head.
Part of the reason I dreaded her so was
her size, of course. She stood five-foot-three and weighed five
hundred pounds, easily. Four-eighty on a good day. She
wore three or four chins as comfortably as most people carry one.
Her eyes were set so deeply inside the folds of her cheeks that it
sometimes looked as though they were closed permanently. But when
she moved, or, worse still, when anyone else around her moved, she would
draw her head in their direction as surely as a handful of metal filings
are lured to a magnet, and you would know after all that she could see
perfectly fine from behind all those layers of fat, thank you very much.
So that was a good part of my repulsion.
But there was more. There was the story. The tale of a young
man--Adolph, I believe his name was--who had been a doughboy in Europe
during World War I and, while on a leave of absence from the war, had
taken to frequenting a certain dance hall known by the name of That's
Fats, or something to that effect. Inside That's Fats, he
discovered a most remarkable thing. All of the twenty or so women
who periodically climbed the steps to the stage--the broiling spot lights
casting eerie shadows across their faces, their limbs, their torsos--were
fat. Enormously fat. They were called The Beef Trust.
I could only imagine why. The lead dancer, naturally, was Fat Mary.
Well, as my grandfather, who--it just so
happened to be--was the brother to Fat Mary, liked to tell it, when Adolph
the soldier first laid eyes on Mary the Fat, sparks flew. Or maybe
fat grams. But whatever they were, Adolph knew in an instant that he
had finally met his fate.
So he dated her once or twice, poked her
a few times in between--how, I can't imagine, since Adolph was
four-feet-eight and weighed in at a scant eighty-five pounds--and then
brought her home with him to Chicago and married her. He set the two
of them up in a comfortable brick bungalow on Chicago's great if
economically undistinguished South Side, and proceeded, like all good
Italian men of little-to-no upbringing, to pork every available woman in
the neighborhood. And a few who were unavailable, if you know what I
Well, it didn't take long for Fat Mary
to catch wind of Adolph's indiscretions, and when she confronted him with
the evidence, he calmly proceeded to pluck a belt from a hook inside their
bedroom door and beat the living hell out of her. After that, Fat
Mary would periodically show up at various family functions with bandages
stretched across her cheeks and ice packs tucked beneath her chins.
All of which made her that much more
alluring in my eyes, I can assure you.
So, while I stood beside the casket,
looking down at Fat Mary and thinking about how badly she looked but how
lucky she was to be free at last, I could not help but inhale the thick,
pungent, sickening smell of all the herbs and spices, the strange
conglomeration of meats and vegetables mixed in with her Italian-Polish
heritage, the odd combination of sweet and stinking cheeses that she was
wont to devour on a regular basis and which, I was convinced, continued to
rot long after they had passed down her esophagus, through her gigantic
stomach, and out into history. And that, I was convinced, along with
the sweat that poured out of her constantly--even at death--was what made
up that smell.
Now I realized that I may have been
wrong all along, because for the first time in nearly twenty years, I
smelled that smell again. This time, it was coming from Elgars.
I would not--could not--have
written that at 14. Hell, I doubt that I would even have recalled
it until I was 45. Time has a way of making us more conscious, more
cognizant of those things that happened to us when we were young, melding
one set of reactions, feelings, and dreams with another to produce a
perfectly wonderful anecdotal tale.
4.) There's a thin line separating memoir
from egotism. A small dose of ego is healthy; no writer can go far
without it. Egotistic writing, however, is a bane, and a memoir is not
a license to commit mindless prattle.
How you come to enjoy the one while
sidestepping the other is a means of simply avoiding the excesses and making
sure that every single component in your memoir serves a useful purpose.
Write about yourself, by all means, with confidence and with pleasure.
But see to it that all of your details—people, places, events,
anecdotes, ideas, emotions—are there to move your story along steadily.
If they fail to do their job, the reader will stumble over them and fall,
and you will look like a conceited ass.
Why write a memoir at all, if doing so is
so risky a business? Mainly because no other nonfiction form goes so
deeply into the roots of personal experience—to all the drama and pain and
humor and surprise of life. Great memoirs are some of the finest reads
you'll ever enjoy--books such as Andre Acimans Out of Egypt, Michael
J. Arlen's Exiles, Russell Baker's Growing Up, Vivian
Gornick's Fierce Attachments, Pete Hamill's A Drinking Life,
Moss Hart's Act One, John Houseman's Run-Through, Mary Karr's
The Liars' Club, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, Vladimir
Nabokov's Speak, Memory, V. S. Pritchett's A Cab at the Door,
Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, and Leonard Woolf's
Growing. Now that's writing.
5.) Focus is most effective when honed to its narrowest point. What
creates power in a memoir is the book's concentrated illuminating beam.
Unlike an autobiography, which busies itself in laying out the entire life
of a person, a memoir assumes the reader is less interested in the whole
than in a tiny slice of it--a period within the writer's lifetime, an
experience to be savored, examined, sniffed, tasted, remembered, and
possibly even related to.
The effective memoir writer takes us back to some corner of his or her past
that was unusually intense—childhood, for instance—or that was framed by war
some other extraordinary social upheaval. Baker's Growing Up is
a box within a
box, two stories for the price of one. It's the story of a boy growing
up, set inside the story of a family battered by the Depression.
Nabokov's Speak, Memory, regarded by some as the most elegant memoir
ever written, elicits memories of a boyhood in Czarist Russia, a world
strewn with private tutors and summer houses that the Russian Revolution
would soon enough relegate to the pages of history. It is history
frozen in time.
Think narrowly, then, when you try your
hand at writing this genre form. Memoir isn't the summary of a life;
it's a tiny window into a realization, a quick glance at a photograph whose
image remains indelibly etched in the mind to haunt and illuminate long
after the photograph is gone. The memoir may look like a casual and
willy-nilly recounting of some of life's most trivial events. But it's
much more than that: it's an examination of how such events came to affect a
human being. It's a look at a piece of that person's life.
Thoreau, it's alleged, wrote seven
different drafts of Walden in eight years. If so, then few
American memoirs have been more painstakingly pieced together. To
write a good memoir, you must become both critic and editor of your own
life's events, shaping an ungodly potpourri of half-remembered events into a
well-organized narrative. Memoir is the art of reinventing personal
6.) Sweat the details--they are one of the primary secrets in making the art
work called memoir succeed. Any kind of details will do, so long as
they are keen and quickly perceivable by the reader. They can be
smells or sounds, visual images or more--so long as they trigger in the
reader an instantaneous, "Oh, yeah, I get it!" Here's a small slice of
something that triggers memories in nearly everyone, a section from Eudora
Welty's One Writer's Beginnings:
In our house on North Congress Street,
in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born the oldest of three children in
1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks. There was a
mission-style oak grandfather clock standing in the hall, which sent its
gong-like strokes through the living room, dining room, kitchen, and
pantry, and up the sounding board of the stairwell. Through the night, it
could find its way into our ears; sometimes, even on the sleeping porch,
midnight could wake us up. My parents' bedroom had a smaller
striking clock that answered it. Though the kitchen clock did
nothing but show the time, the dining room clock was a cuckoo clock with
weights on long chains ...
My father loved all instruments that would instruct and fascinate.
His place to keep things was the drawer in the "library table" where lying
on top of his folded maps was a telescope with brass extensions, to find
the moon and the Big Dipper after supper in our front yard, and to keep
appointments with eclipses. There was a folding Kodak that was
brought out for Christmas, birthdays, and trips. In the back of the
drawer you could find a magnifying glass, a kaleidoscope, and a gyroscope
kept in a black buckram box, which he would set dancing for us on a string
pulled tight. He had also supplied himself with an assortment of
puzzles composed of metal rings and intersecting links and keys chained
together, impossible for the rest of us, however patiently shown, to take
apart; he had an almost childlike love of the
How much we learn--right there and
then--about Welty's familial beginnings, the kind of home in which she
lived, the lovely peculiarities of her father who influenced her so!
In the continuum of a few short sentences, she opens the door to her
Mississippi childhood, admitting us into her own home to hear all the clocks
chiming, up and down the stairs and even out onto the sleeping porch, where
sleeping--especially at the stroke of midnight--was often anything but easy.
I, too, once lived in a house with chiming
clocks. So long ago, so many memories past. And thus I was
aligned with the author the moment I realized where she was going ... which
was where she had been. More than that, a good memoir writer can't
ask. For, once you have the reader on your side, conquering the rest
of the world is easy.