By: Marilyn L. Davis
“It isn’t enough to have had an interesting or hilarious or tragic life. Art isn’t anecdote. It’s the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives. For what happened in the story to transcend the limits of the person, it must be driven by the engine of what the story means.” ― Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Isolated Experiences Can’t Drive the Memoir
Near-death motorcycle accident at 17, cervical cancer diagnosed at 19, hysterectomy at 23, drug addict by age 30; does any of that sound familiar? Probably not, and so I’d lose readers before they even picked up the book.
Memoir must contain more than the events or even the highlights of that life; there has to be similarities in the readers’ lives in order to touch them and keep them reading.
This is where each writer finds their theme -that distinct, but unifying idea of the writing, because universal themes transcend gender, age, and race. Memoir lets the writer relive, reflect and rediscover through their memories, thoughts and feelings. But good memoir is not just a human experience, or the perceptions of the writer, but an experience that goes beyond the life of the writer and captures moments, feelings and perceptions of the reader.
We’re In This Together
Many people are told:
- “You ought to write a book”
- “You’ve got a great story”
- “People could learn a lot from your life”
But great stories don’t always translate into great memoir. Why is that?
It’s similar to what happens when I’m working with a new client, struggling to get off drugs and alcohol. I’ve been in recovery for 28 years. While some are impressed with the number of years I’ve been off drugs and alcohol, others simply cannot fathom going without them for that long. End of story. I’ve lost them.
Why? Because they cannot relate to the amount of time. It’s my job to go back to how I felt, what I thought, and the struggles I had at the time when I got into recovery that I know are similar to them.
Then that individual knows I understand what they are experiencing and with that awareness that we are not significantly different, they are more open to hearing what I did to accomplish that time. Now we’re getting somewhere.
That translates in the memoir to finding the theme. The universal similarities, struggles, or the ability to discern an opportunity and capitalize on it. Beyond theme that resonates for others, is dialogue that either is an exact replication of what was said, or a reasonable facsimile.
Voices: Writer’s and Other Participants
What makes dialogue important in memoirs is that it conveys the point of view of the other people involved and doesn’t diminish the writer’s voice.
Before I got into recovery, I created the illusion that I was manipulating situations to my advantage, escaping natural consequences for my actions, and fooling others into thinking I was okay. My sister kidnapped me one Christmas; trying desperately to keep me away from drugs. She took me to a friend’s house and in that secluded cabin in the woods – no literary license here, it was a cabin in the woods, she started pointing out all the problems in my life as she saw them. I, of course, refuted each argument.
Finally, out of desperation, she blurted, “You think you’re Machiavelli, but you’re really Bozo the Clown.”
We are not a family that just says, “Boy are you stupid and delusional.” No, we provide comparisons that leave no doubt as to our perception of the issue. To this day, she likes that statement so much, that she’s used it to describe others in a working relationship. It’s such a part of our shared history that I can fill in the blanks for her when she mentions a Machiavelli employee. There’s no doubt as to the authenticity of that dialogue.
But what if you don’t remember exactly what someone said? After all, you aren’t a recording device. You can still add dialogue that imparts the truth of the statements without it being exact. Just as our memories of the events are a reflection, when we add dialogue, it may be a slightly altered version.
“A storyteller makes up things to help other people; a liar makes up things to help himself.” ― Daniel Wallace, The Kings and Queens of Roam
However, even when we are embellishing or adding plausible dialogue to the event, we have to have boundaries as to truth and fiction. If our additions move the memoir along and help with the story, it’s okay to write a reasonable reflection of the conversation.
That Was Then; This is Now: Memoir and the Memory
We store memories in our brain, which makes it sound like a puzzle box where we reassemble the pieces and get a clear picture. Unfortunately, memory isn’t that simple or that consolidated. We have to retrieve the memories from different parts of our brain and then reassemble them into a cohesive memory. And it’s the reassembling of the memories that acts as creative re-imagination.
So that day that “started like any other” then takes on significance. Or the “chance encounter” or the choices we make that have a profound influence on the remainder of our lives.
Realistically, if it was just another day, other than the commonality of it, would there be any reason to write about it? However, with creative imagination, we can embellish the sky, the air, or the sounds to add a heightened sense of importance.
We draw our readers through their senses and help them find the meaning and theme in our lives, which in turn, helps them find the significance in their lives. That’s what makes a powerful memoir.
And if we embellished a little? Well, if it was to help, we already know that’s okay.
More posts to help you write the best memoir you can:
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