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Writing the Memoir: The Thing Itself by Larry Smith
Milldust and Roses: Memoirs

“Memory has its own story to tell,” Tobias Wolff

As a writer and editor/publisher for Bottom Dog Press, I meet many people who tell me that they are writing their memoirs. Yet when I ask how far along they are, they typically answer (while pointing to their heads), “Oh, I haven’t begun to write…but I’m going to one day.”  I find it a shame that they are stuck, and I believe there are ways of getting over those blocks to writing where the rewards are so strong, and I’m not talking about fame and fortune here. As most writers know, the act of writing well or making art is its own best reward.

A simple definition of memoir can help clear the air: “A memoir is one person remembering things – and sharing what is in their mind and heart.” Making it more than this is a mistake for it constructs a block. Bill Roorbach declares, “…memory is what people are made of, after skin and bones, I mean.” And Mimi Schwartz reminds us of the fundamental purpose of such writing: “We re-enter old lives to discover what they meant to us: to pay homage, to bear witness, to commemorate, to learn something new, and to pass that on.” Knowing intention helps you stay authentic.

Tools to use in making this journey include a sharpened sense of history, a personal chronology, any old letters, diaries and journals, maps of places held dear and old photographs. We use them as prompts and take notes of the memories they suggest. When searching for a form, I would suggest the organic, allowing the form to arise from the telling. A memoir may become personal essay (or chapters), poetry, personal history. But note that memoir is not synonymous with autobiography which seeks to be all inclusive and follows a detailed chronology. Just as memories come in fragments with gaps, so the memoir form is looser and more suggestive rather than exhaustive. By its very nature, unless written on one’s death bed, the memoir is never complete.

A key to doing any writing is getting our intention clear. It unites our method and our message. Poet Denise Levertov suggests the purpose and rewards of writing memoirs: “In remembering we remake, put back together in the present something that had been rendered asunder.” Begin by asking yourself “Why do I care about this? Why am I writing this? What is my intention here?”  It’s essential to care and to keep notes on what matters to you. In memoirs we are both the subject and the writer, and so their writing becomes the art of being yourself. In the process you will witness your life take shape, but only if you give yourself over to it. Your sincere intention is a chief part of the message and the form it takes.

Another key is sound, or in this case, the voice of the writing. Voice is crucial. Memoir requires that the reader feel spoken to. It must have the ease of honesty, not the contrivance of making things up. Our responsibility to those of whom and for whom we write is to be authentic. They expect us to tell the truth, and trust me, if you begin to make things up, readers will sense it in your voice and in your too-easy handling of facts. Remember that you are not shooting for The Truth but a truth for you and the experience. In finding the story and telling it without sacrificing the truth you will find meaning. Memoir is one process where you may both tell the story and muse upon it. The reader responds to the story and to your telling of it. Your life and your voice are the evidence made evident.  Or as Patricia Hampl states, “To write one’s life enables the world to know its history” through that singular voice that “not only has the evidence. It is the evidence.”

Let’s recognize some blocks to our writing our memoirs. What is it that keeps us from starting? Chiefly I believe it’s our sense of unworthiness as subject. We have read memoirs and biographies of the famous and those who have endured great tragedies and made great accomplishments. And we ask, “How do I qualify?” Well, a good look at memoirs would tell you that it’s often the simple acts of living that make them meaningful. Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle about her working-class childhood or Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies :Some Thoughts on Faith earn their greatness not on their accomplishments but on the way the writer captures the common grain of life. Trust yourself and your life, and also trust others to connect. It’s an old adage, but everyone does have a story, in fact many stories to share, and the act of telling is a large part of that story. Trust that too.

Anne Lamott gives good advice in her Bird by Bird book. Besides the title’s suggestion to break things down and write it a piece at a time, “bird by bird,” she warns against being too hard on yourself and listening to all those demon voices of doubt. Her suggestion is to recognize those voices when them come, “You can’t do this!” and place them in an imagined jar, and then put the lid on tight. Judgment has stifled many a piece of writing and art, and often we are hardest on ourselves. Don’t write from doubt, but from belief in something larger than your ego…the life and the act of your sharing.

Another block is our fear of what our family and friends might think. Certainly all families have secrets, and how much to tell is up to each writer to work out. My best advice is that if you treat your characters honestly with complexity and compassion, they will most likely feel honored. We all want to be presented with understanding. When I published my Milldust and Roses: Memoirs about my working-class youth, I immediately sent copies to my brother and sisters telling them that this was how I remembered our family, and they were free to see it differently. (Besides, the book had already been published by then.) Only my sister Janis responded with, “Well, I thought there were more roses and less milldust.” A valid comment, but not my vision.

Another area to be forewarned about is writing a memoir or anything else to please someone. Unless you are doing occasional writing, you have to write for a larger sense of others. I set these priorities: Write for yourself, then for the writing, and finally for the truth. I once answered my mother’s request, “How come you never write anything about me?” with a personal essay in which she figures as a main character. And after it was published, I waited for her thanks. I finally asked, “Well, how’d you like it, Mom?” Her response was stinging: “Honey, it was okay, but you didn’t give me one good line.” I learned to return to the authentic intention of the work, the larger sense of community and art and it would keep me straight.

Another way to block yourself comes when we lose the authenticity by writing falsely. This can happen when we see heroes and villains, victims and villains, in other words, trap ourselves in oversimplification and stereotypes. Mimi Schwartz rightly advises, “Unless we challenge these certainties…we lose the complexity of character that makes readers care about and trust our vision.” And sometimes we sacrifice truth for an ease of narration. We create a “story,” rather than get at the truth of experience. Seeing too myopically can also trap us. We all fall into this at times…where we are talking just to ourselves and not another. If you’re uncertain, I would suggest reading it aloud for others, or have them read it back to you. The challenge is to move from the small self to the large Self. And it comes naturally as long as you are being authentic and not trying too hard or forgetting your larger intention.

When we look at authentic writing—and I maintain we all know it when we find it—some common characteristics show themselves. I find myself located in writing…in a real time and place with enough detail and images to make it come alive. To achieve this I share the writing with others and I often do background writing by literally mapping out the place, drawing the old neighborhood with the names of people and streets; this may also help with structuring a piece of writing.

Good memoir certainly includes reflective musings, but your characters must come alive by speaking and that requires vivid scenes with good dialogue. Allow them to talk naturally as they did and do. You want to give the texture and grain of the experience. You may use summary description as well as scene presentation, but avoid explaining what you have already shown. Trust the writing and the reader. Perhaps this is the place to remember that you must be both the writer and the reader of any piece of writing. Be the writer first, and then the reader, but be both.

The goal is to connect the inner and outer worlds for the readers, and you will be doubly rewarded by finding truth for yourself. Allow the levels to emerge as you write. You may find the sections and overall design moving from confession to exploration to understanding. It’s organic and natural, so be open to it. You will meet the pain and beauty, sorrow and joy inherent in your subject matter— life. We write to capture and share that. The great satisfaction and joy in that act of writing Virginia Woolf describes well in her own memoirs “A Sketch of the Past”:

"Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing. I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool [of daily life] is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. . . . we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself."

And so we end with our opening definition of the memoir: “One person remembering things – and sharing what is in their mind and heart.” In clearing our intention and trusting ourselves and our subject we find the words for life’s music and become the thing itself.

Some Helpful Sources

Bill Roorbach. Writing Life Stories: How To Make Memories Into Memoirs, Ideas Into Essays And Life Into Literature.

Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz. Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction.

Patricia Hampl. I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memor.

Larry Smith is the author of 5 books of fiction, 8 books of poetry, two literary biographies of Kenneth Patchen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 2 film scripts, and the book of memoirs, Milldust and Roses (Ridgeway Press).  He is the director of Bottom Dog Press/ Bird Dog Publishing and professor emeritus of Bowling Green State University’s Firelands College.


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Memoir vs Autobiography

Thanks Larry for a great article. I have written and published a memoir and people often ask me what the difference is between a memoir and autobiography. You give a concise and simple explanation.