November is #NationalMemoirWritingMonth

Each time I sit down to write a memoir essay or work on my book I have to fight off the Critic Dragon screaming, “Who cares about your piddly life?” If you are a memoir writer, or considering writing a memoir, you may have the same Critic Dragon breathing fire at your keyboard.

Guess what? Even though your life experience may seem unique, many others are going through similar experiences and challenges. Your perspective just may help them get through it.

“But there are already so many books about (abuse, divorce, trauma, recovery—whatever).”

Remember this: No one has written about the experience the way you will.  James Jones, Norman Mailer, Tim O’Brien—and scores of others have written about war, and no two books are alike. A multitude of writers have written about death and loss, but it didn’t stop Joan Dideon from writing about the topic in her unique voice in The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. I could go on, there are endless examples.

When I wrote Replacement Childhaving no experience whatsoever writing memoir, I was blindsided during the writing by the revelation that I was writing about the loss of a child. It was the kernel of the story which drew the largest feedback from readers and spoke to them in a way I had not anticipated. Memoir can be surprising, even to the author.

Now, writing a new memoir, I fend off the Critic Dragon telling me I have no new perspectives on addiction and the opioid epidemic. But I continue to follow the breadcrumbs of my story and find something new around each curve in the path.

Write your story! It is more than your own.

#NationalMemoirWritingMonth

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ~Anne Lamott

“I believe that the memoir is the novel of the 21st century; it’s an amazing form that we haven’t even begun to tap…we’re just getting started figuring out what the rules are.” ~Susan Cheever

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” ~Graham Greene

“I love all insider memoirs. It doesn’t matter whether it’s truck-drivers or doctors. I think everybody likes to go backstage, find out what people think and what they talk about and what specialized job they have.” ~David Mamet

“I have more freedom when I write fiction, but my memoirs have had a much stronger impact on my readers. Somehow the ‘message,’ even if I am not even aware that there is one, is conveyed better in this form.” ~Isabel Allende

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ~William Faulkner

 

What is Your Memoir “Voice” — and How Do You Find It?


When I began photowriting my memoir, Replacement Child, I struggled to find the right voice for the story. I experimented with a child’s voice; then explored it through my mother’s eyes, my sister’s and most revealing to me, my father’s viewpoint. At the time, I felt like I was spinning my wheels and wasting precious time. But, looking back, none of that writing was wasted, even though most never found its way into the final version of the book. All of it was necessary to help me discover the style that I felt best relayed my story.

If you think of voice as it pertains to other art forms, it’s what sets the artist apart from others. So that, for example, you can identify a Monet from a Picasso, even if the subject matter may be the same. Likewise, you can read the first page of The Glass Castle and hear that Jeannette Wall’s voice is completely different than Mary Karr’s in The Liar’s Club. Both books are about tragic childhoods, but each has a completely different personality of its own. It may take you some experiments with your writing to find the voice that works best to unify the structural elements of your story.

Voice is difficult to describe, and I remember being befuddled by references to “finding my voice” as a new writer. An author’s voice is her style of writing that is made up of the patterns and cadences of sentences, her habits in punctuation and the kind of language used. It should make the book unique and interesting, and be integral to the story without distracting the reader. Especially in memoir, voice should be a tool to convey the emotion around the events.

I firmly believe that everyone has their own unique writing voice that can be unearthed through practice and dogged re-writing. Laraine Herring says in her book, Writing Begins with the Breath, that we are all schooled not to write authentically, but to mimic others, to hide our authentic voice because we are afraid of being vulnerable. To the question, how do you know “when you are, well, you?” she says:

“You practice your writing. You allow yourself to move deeper      and deeper into the heart of your pieces. You stand beside yourself, detached yet present, as you journey deep inside. You test yourself, as you bring forth poem after poem and story after story from within you. You honestly assess your work. Ask yourself these questions:

    • Is this the truth? (Not the literal truth, but the truth of that work).
    • What have I left out?
    • Why have I left that out?
    • What would happen if I added that which I left out back in?
    • Where have I written around the story?
    • Have I addressed the question of the story, or have I avoided it?”