December 28, 2016
disclaimer, memoir, nonfiction
In the workshops I run for memoirists the question comes up often. How close must I stay to the facts while I tell my story? The answer varies from one memoirist to the next. Dave Eggars (A Heartbreaking Story of Staggering Genius) veers close to fiction. He invents dialogue that he doesn’t remember and built composite characters to represent people from his life.
On the other end of the scale is Lee Gutkind. He’s the father of creative nonfiction and says nothing should ever go onto the page that you cannot document. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up is one of his seminal craft books.
A Top 10 memoir for 2016, J.D. Vance’s A Hillbilly Elegy walks closer to the documentation line. It also includes this report of how he built his story of memories. While he admits he’s changed names (who doesn’t in their memoir?) he adds
This story is, to the best of my recollection, a fully accurate portrait of the world I’ve witnessed. Where possible, I corroborated the details with documentation—report cards, handwritten letters, note on photographs—but I am sure this story is as fallible as any human memory.
He goes on to report how he gave his sister a draft and they talked for 30 minutes about how he’d misplaced an event chronologically. “I left my version in,” he adds, “not because I suspect my sister’s memory is faulty (in fact, I imagine hers is better than mine) but because I think there is something to learn in how I’ve organized the events in my own mind.”
Vance’s book acknowledges he is biased and notes that some family members have attempted homicide, “and a few were successful.” You’ll want to get the details essentially correct about people who see murder as a reasonable response. But I also heard from a writer at the Texas Book Festival whose memoir was full of criminals from the author’s life before prison. “They complained when I left them out of the book,” he said, “and I told them, ‘I’ll get you in the next one.’ ”
Do your best to remember. Don’t leave something important out of your memoirs because you can’t recall it completely. The larger truth is what we hope to witness while we read memoirs.
December 30, 2015
memoir, nonfiction, style, voice
Voice is harder to teach than it seems. It’s about hearing yourself. That’s why the Amherst Writers methods I use in my workshops are so good for discovering your authentic voice. When you read your fresh writing out loud as we do, in a safe and supportive space, you can hear what rings true. You’ll hear the clear, un-compromised notes from deep in your heart.
Hearing your voice can give you confidence to create something like bathos: that juicy anticlimax when you go from the deep sentiment of your heartstrings to something plain, like the taste of sliced cheese. First the heart, then a simple sentence.
We work toward hearing the styles of our voices. There’s authentic Original Voice, the one we’re raised with and hear as it tells our childhood’s stories. Then there’s Natural Voice, used for our reports on our own life and the facts of our world. Finally there’s Costumed Voices, the ones we prepare for showing off the characters in our stories. Everybody speaks a little differently. Making these voices distinct is a skill worth polishing.
Why is that Original Voice so important? Once you can feel how much comfort your voice gives you, it becomes less painful to write out all of that suppressed trauma. Trust the words you remember from your childhood, Pat Schneider says in Writing Alone and With Others. Her Amherst method textbook has a chapter all its own devoted to voice. There’s a good book by Ben Yagoda, the Sound on the Page, that teaches about voice, too.
When you write about something you care about deeply, you are likely to choose your Original Voice. Use simple language, most of us will. The Original Voice transports us to a place where we can forget to be afraid. Abraham Verghese broke into the world of letters in 1994 with his memoir My Own Country, but he’s come to better known for Cutting for Stone, a novel starring a character with many qualities in common with the author.
In The Sound on the Page, Verghese was interviewed about voice and style and said this about writing nonfiction and memoir.
To me, finding voice is about confidence. I struggled when I first started writing nonfiction. I had to speak as myself. There had to be a sameness and a tameness to my voice. And I had to learn that this ione of the great advantages of nonficton: when something is true, you automatically have the reader’s interest, because we’re all inherently curious about things that really happened.
June 23, 2014
craft, memoir, nonfiction, structure
craft, memoir, nonfiction, William Zissner
William Zissner, a giant in the nonfiction writing world and the author of On Writing Well, gives us the most simple advice. From an essay of his in 2006, on the American Scholar website.
As for how to actually organize your memoir, my final advice is, again, think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished product, the grand edifice you have vowed to construct. That will only make you anxious.
Here’s what I suggest.
Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long—three pages, five pages—but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.
Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir,” the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.
Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.
Of course, the “putting together” the late, great Zissner describes can be one of the most creative aspects of this project. But until you have pieces, you can only imagine what your memoir will say, or hear the voice that will be telling the tale. You must be patient and write awhile, to begin.