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Realistic Expectations For Writing a Memoir

Learn what a memoir is and how to create memories with today's tip of the day taken from Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach, with Kristen Keckler.

What is a memoir?

Memoir is rendering of a lived life, as filtered through memory and the wider net of the needs of narrative. Memoir just tells the story, no explicit thesis here. Memoir examines a life, a self, and does so through a period of time, say early childhood or the month you spent with Grandpa in France. Like novels and short stories, memoirs tend to operate in time and space, tend to have a story arc, rising action leading to climax, a balance of scene and summary. A reflective voice might tell the story, might analyze events, but it tends to stay in the background, tends to let the action do the work. Research can support the storytelling, but the point isn’t a display of facts or information. A memoir lays out the evidence of a life, lets the reader make the conclusions. The mode ranges from pure, plain storytelling to reflective storytelling. Some memoirs get so reflective and analytical that they move close to and overlap with the personal essay. A few pages, a book, a few volumes, memoir is an expansible form. Examples of book-length memoir: The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison; The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls; Minor Characters, by Joyce Johnson.

Realistic Ways to Achieve Good Writing

Good writing is, among other things, an illusion. The primary illusion is of ease. We read a beautifully constructed book with pleasure and admiration, forgetting that the writer had to sit down day after day for a year or two years or more (often many more) to do the job. We forget—because it’s the writer’s job to make us forget—all the drafting, all the false starts, all the seamlessly incorporated suggestions and corrections of editors and other readers, all the self-doubt, all the projects started and never finished, all the manuscripts in drawers, all the learning, all the patience, all the study, all the practice: the apprenticeship. So, we read the book and feel cowed. How’d she do this? And worse, we get the idea that we ought to be able to sit down and write a beauty on the first try.

Good writing occurs not in bursts of inspiration (although inspiration can’t hurt) but in time so slow it feels like geologic time. Ten thousand years is nothing, a moment. A million years is but a day. That some good writers write terrific drafts fast is a function of experience, of many years’ hard work in preparation, and rarely of raw talent.

Polishing Your Memoir

Polishing is insidious. You polish up your essay—put a finish on it—and the surface gets so bright you can’t (and don’t want to) delve beneath the surface. Your prose becomes reflective, a mirror. You see yourself in it. You actually begin to confuse the writing with yourself. And now there’s no way to cut into that writing, no way to smash that veneer, no way to see clearly beneath it.

Polishing is a form of tinkering, and tinkering--for too many new writers--is what revision amounts to. You can spend days adjusting sentences in a first paragraph that ought to be cut altogether. You can spend months moving paragraphs around in a piece that out to be shelved forever—honorably, of course—perhaps seen as a study for work to come.

Real revision—it’s right there in the word—is re-seeing.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, read other writing tips and posts on memoir writing.

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