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Why I Write Memoir...For Now


If, as Stephen King says in his memoir, "On Writing," fiction happens when the writer asks herself "What if?" then memoir, I believe, is born when the writer asks herself "What now?"  In other words, how can the writer of memoir understand and illuminate the experiences she or he has lived?

When I first began exploring the material that would form the basis of my book, "Great Space of Desire; Writing For Personal Evolution," I intended to fictionalize the characters and slightly change the settings. I morphed my mother's character from a retired ballet dancer living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to an opera singer living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  I struggled with this material in fiction workshops at Hunter College, trying to feel the pulse and life's blood of the story to little avail.  My scenes felt forced, wooden, and unreal. I was trying to write from my controlling left brain, approaching my stories and experiences analytically, rather than working organically, drawing inspiration from the hidden subtexts of the real story. I was trying to construct my story from the outside-in instead of letting the story unfold from the inside-out.

It's a funny thing about writing. I'd kept journals for over half my life -- books that I'd curled over in rapt absorption sitting on park benches, at kitchen tables or (ideally) propped on comfortable pillows in bed, distilling the very essence of my thought, emotion and action into strong and tender words on blank, receptive pages. But when it came time to Write, that is write with a capital 'W', my back became straight and stiff and so did my mind.  Gone were the subtle and unexpected curlicues of my imagination replaced by words, sentences and paragraphs which marched dutifully forward toward a predetermined destination called 'Story Resolution.'  The fun and magic I'd experienced in my journal writing evaporated.

In the fall of 2000, as part of my MFA studies, I took a workshop on memoir with writer, Louise DeSalvo.  This one class radically changed my understanding of the writing process. One by one the closed doors to my imagination flew open admitting sound, color and all sorts of perception into my writing space. I learned  A LOT in this workshop -- about memoir and fiction and the inter-relatedness of the two genres.  But the single most important thing I learned from Ms. DeSalvo is that it was possible to approach my 'serious' writing with the same relaxed and loose-wristed attitude maintained in my journal writing.  In fact, the journal writing which I'd discounted as just for myself, was actually incredibly valuable because it nurtured the creative process necessary for me to tackle more complex writing projects.

The lessons I brought away from DeSalvo's workshop -- the fundamentals of creative process -- are important for all writers to absorb.  In order to create the kind of strong, vibrant writing we hope to achieve, we need to develop a relaxed and versatile approach to our craft whether we're working in fiction, memoir, poetry or essay.  It's also very important to learn how to create a layering of detail around your characters and places. Recognizing the right details to foreground in any given moment or throughout a scene is a key element in developing your characters and bringing their inner conflicts to light.  These details are not random, they must be an intrinsic part of your character and her story.

That's why it didn't work for me to change my mother's character from a ballet dancer to an opera singer. My mother's inner life derived from her preoccupation with dance not with singing so her character functioned very differently in the world, noticing different details and having different reactions than an opera singer whose primary instrument is her voice, not her entire body. Without accessing this primary  data, your characters remain unconvincing and two dimensional.

Many people who show up for the first time in my Storytelling & Memoir Writing workshops say things like "I have these great stories -- if I can just get them down on paper."  But there is no 'just getting it down on paper.' There's a whole translation involved from the lived experience to the written experience that is the art of memoir.  It's kind of like the Transporter on Star Trek; we are moving story molecules from one world to another.

Some people think that writing memoir is easier than writing fiction. It's not.  Or, it depends on how your mind works.  But, even if we start with an idea of the people and events we want to write about, we still have to extract certain essences from these people and situations which translates into story structure.  At certain points in their writing, memoir and fiction writers are doing the same kind work of the imagination. If memoir offers any kind of head-start over fiction, it's in the potential for checking your story translations against the real people and events you're describing, asking yourself 'How well does my writing capture this person?  This moment? This event?'

If you feel confused by all these moving parts and definitions, let's go back to to the basics for a moment.  A story, whether written in fiction or memoir, is based on a particular perspective or point-of-view. It's the writer's job to figure out what this perspective looks, sounds and feels like.  As a writer of memoir, translating real characters into story reality, you need to keep asking "What now?" again and again, searching the primary data and your own imagination until the familiar characters and situations reveal something you didn't know before.


  • AnneMorgan

    I like what you have to say in this blog and it is dense with many issues in it.
    I really resonated to your description of writing your mother and not an opera singer because of the way that you could more genuinly describe and know her as a character.

    I have been struggling with this a bit and as a new writer i am not sure where i am at present.The stories that i have written are based on real characters, some from family, and i find them easier to relate to.However when the character wants to do something different or i want the character to be different than the real person it sometimes feels hard to manage. I had begun to think that it wasnt a great idea to model fictional characters but your blog has helped.
    I would also like to be able to make a charcter from a composite of peeople as one has to use what and who one knows and encounters in life.
    If i see a news article that arouses me i dont know the person concerned and can base a story on that but i suppose one just h...

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