Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Memoir Doesn't Have to Be a Book

This is my life at Kenyon College right now - sunlight
filtering throug the trees along the Middle Path,
where we writers tread to meet for our
various workshops.

I just finished my last conference with participants of Rebecca McClanahan's Literary Nonfiction Workshop at the Kenyon Writers Workshop, and it seems I was able to help a few of them along on their journeys as writers by clarifying that no, a memoir does not have to be a book. I don't know why we tend to think that memoir needs to be book length. Maybe because we see it as the nonfiction equivalent of the novel? Or because that's what we tend to see on bookstore shelves? What then about the nonfiction counterpart of the short story? That might be an essay, but it could also be a memoir.

Often, especially when you are beginning your journey as a writer, it is better to think of shaping one episode, one encounter of your life that was meaningful, that was a turning point, that you keep thinking about into a story that works. Something that is itching and needs scratching. That is not to say that not more might grow out of it. Some memoirs were born out of one stunning essay - example: Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face grew from her National Magazine Award winning essay "Mirrors." Still, this memoir is not a continuous narrative, but rather a collection of essays on the topic of her struggle with childhood cancer of the jaw.

Sometimes, a memoir can just be one page, or two, or three. And that's it. That's perfect. One excellent anthology to study short pieces like this is In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal. My personal favorite in that collection is Ariel Dorfman's Dealing with the Discovery of Death Inside an Embassy in October of 1973 in Santiago de Chile. A momentous event captured in a few pages.

So free yourselves, dear writers of literary nonfiction: Even if you are envisioning a longer book, start small, write one piece and make that perfect, see if it can find a home where others can read it, too, and see where that success takes you.

9 comments:

  1. I forgot you were doing this. I'm sure you really sent them on their way. I couldn't get anywhere when I thought about writing a book. A memoir takes many shapes. Mine just end up a collection of essays rather than a straightforward narrative.

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    1. Julie - indeed, memoir takes many shapes, and a collection of essays is a perfectly valid and quite entertaining way of doing it. By the way, I think you would really love Kenyon. See if you can fit it into your schedule next year.

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  2. Excellent reminder. I want to start, but it seems so overwhelming.

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    1. Tara - that's exactly why I think it is important to keep in mind that writing is not just about producing a book. It's about the journey and about learning how to tell a story. If that story is short, so be it.

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  3. "it is better to think of shaping one episode, one encounter of your life that was meaningful, that was a turning point, that you keep thinking about into a story that works. Something that is itching and needs scratching." Did this ever bring me up short. I made one start at writing my memoir back in April - my effort for Camp NaNoWriMo. I wasn't going to do the Camp again in July. But I may rethink that. I do have something that has to be scratched, and it's not what I thought it was when I started this memoir process.

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    1. bookworm - that's the beauty of writing, once you do it, and get into it, you discover that what you are actually writing about is something entirely different. I love that process of discovery! I hope you keep scratching!

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  4. I wouldn't have thought of it along those lines!

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  5. Oh! I am so happy to have found you, Annette. And your wisdom. Yes, the damn thing (it is a damn thing) does not have to be a freaking book. Thank you for reminding me. I'd almost given up on my behemoth of a 'story' after a recent conference that will remain nameless. It can be approached in essays or parts. Kim Barnes said that once we find the structure, we can build the house. That's right. ANd, further, it doesn't have to be linear either. I've even toyed with the idea of putting all the fictionalized versions with the non-fiction and titling it, Memoir: FAct and Fiction, Story or Non, You Decide or Don't - Just read.

    Wheesh. What a thicket. Thanks for the shears.
    Lucinda

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    1. lucinda - I am so glad you have found me, too! Yes, a memoir doesn't have to be linear either - two good examples: Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas, or Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy.

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