Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Musing on memoirs

I had an interesting discussion with some other writers on, believe it or not, Facebook today. I started a tempest in commenting on aspiring writers who write only in the memoir genre and who join writing workshops, groups, and classes not to learn the craft of writing but to "express their feelings" (generally painful ones involving the negative) . It has been my observation in numerous workshops that these folks seem to be under several illusions: 1. That their individual misery is extremely interesting to other people 2. That their words are pure perfection requiring no editing or learning of story crafting whatsoever.

They have never heard the maxim "show, don't tell". They can't write dialogue and generally say they hate to read dialogue. Their character (s) are usually extremely one dimensional and rarely does anything actually happen in their memoirs before several hundred pages of narrative pass SLOWLY by. In real life, people don't take five pages to walk across the room to answer the phone, folks. Hear me snore, here.

I made the comment that these folks don't seem to want to develop a writer's toolbox and might better be served by getting some counseling than wasting other peoples time in a writing workshop. Yeah, strong stuff. I admit that. I insulted, without intending to, a nationally successful writer who has written and taught memoir writing. Now of course, this writer can write very well and her books don't resemble anything listed above. But, even if she chose not to say so, I'll bet she has had plenty of those not really serious about writing 'memorists' in her classes over the years.

I personally don't care to read memoirs. I don't read non fiction much either, for the most part. I like fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, etc and for me, the story is the thing. Good story can trump bad writing. Words without something happening cause me to close the book. I don't like whiny characters either. I like to read about protagonists with gumption. Since that's what I like to read, that's also what I like to write. So, I am admittedly biased.

I probably couldn't write a memoir myself. Not if I had to stick strictly to the facts. Maybe I could write creative nonfiction like Midnight In The Garden of Good And Evil. Many times I have written fictional stories based on fact with imagined dialogue and additional plot twists. I think all writers of fiction do this. I can't speak for memoir writers, but since the mind has a way of playing with time I suspect there is some fact stretching even in memoirs now and again.

In any genre, the write what you know maxim does hold true. If you write about universal human emotions and experiences it will work whether Luke Skywalker is a farm boy on Tatooine wanting to join the Rebel alliance or a Kentucky farm boy during the Civil War or a twenty first century Iowa kid on his way to Iraq. But, remember something has to happen to Luke for the reader to care. And, Luke has to do something about it.

A good writer is a good writer, whatever genre he or she chooses to work in. Writing is a craft, though, as well as a passion. As well as an art. Like any craft, it has to be learned. And must be practiced. That means doing something over and over until you get it write. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Good writers must read a lot, too. Talent counts sure, but hard work is essential. That goes for memoir writers as much as anyone else.

I know a man who works only in the memoir genre whose writing is enthralling even if he is just describing his character walking through a bazaar. His well crafted words make you imagine yourself in his shoes and evoke all the senses. His story reeks of the truth of the human experience in a good way. He is a born storyteller who happens to want to tell his own story. And his story is one that I do want to hear since he's an interesting person. So, really, I don't hate memoirs or hold those who write them in contempt. Even though the writer whose post I commented on probably won't believe it.

At the risk of sounding mean again, I think some aspiring writers just get stuck somewhere between a negative emotion and a bad experience and they just can't stop milking it to boredom. They don't have anything to really show us because they haven't made sense of their experience and taken a longer view. They haven't learned and grown and they just want our sympathy for the therapy they think they will get from writing a memoir. Everybody probably does have a story maybe, but maybe not everybody can (or should) tell it. Memoirs are stories after all (or should be) even if of a different sort. Remember the story arc? Beginning, middle, end? How about who wants what? How are they going to get it? Who wants to stop them?

If your true life experience isn't very interesting to anybody but you maybe you should just journal instead. I am ducking and covering here. But, please, aspiring writer, don't take ten pages to describe yourself as "Sally" taking five minutes to look through her pantry and sip tepid tea and look out the window at the snowdrifts in the yard and ignore the ringing phone in her inertia. I don't care how pretty your words are. That scenerio is boring. I don't care if it really happened that way and you/Sally were sad because your boyfriend or husband beat you every winter a decade ago and forbade you to drink tea and you get mopey every time it snows. Give me instead a neighbor desperately trying to warn Sally that a psychotic serial killer has broken out of prison and disappeared into the blizzard the night before, headed right for Sally's farm. Let me know he's just broken into the cellar. Give me a reason to read on. Make one up if nothing more exciting really happened than electricity going off for two hours from ice snapping the power lines. Most people's daily life just isn't interesting enough to record it. Not for a couple hundred years after they've died, maybe. Then after everything has changed mundane life in the past is interesting. Ouch, maybe, but there you have it. My thoughts, take them or leave them.

I'm off now to take the dog for a massage. There's actually a story there, but I am not going to tell it. So you can breath easy. Live long and prosper.

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