Wednesday, March 13, 2013

You Don't Have to Be a Celebrity to Write A Memoir!

 
By Molly Tinsley
You don’t have to be a celebrity or on your last legs to write a memoir.  In fact  life gets so bizarre sometimes that you begin to think only non-fiction can express it.  Fiction has credibility standards after all.

Several years ago, my two siblings and I went through the ordeal of navigating the somewhat premature end-of-life for our parents.  The experience was mind-blowing, and to contain the chaos and make some sense of it, I decided to write a memoir.  As a widely published fiction-writer, I thought, how challenging could it be to tell this real-life story?  The answer is very.  Here are some discoveries I made in the process:

Memoir is not inclusive autobiography.  Successful memoir pulls a single thread from your life and sticks with it, letting go of any characters and incidents that don’t pertain to that one particular thread.  But families are complicated webs; one thread leads to another.  In the case of my memoir, Entering the Blue Stone, a fourth sibling’s mental illness lurked at the edge of the action like a sinkhole.  This brother was present in our mother’s demented mind, yet his trajectory never actually intersected with our parents’ last years. It took conscious effort to keep leaving him out of the story.

Chronology is not structure. Maybe initially with memoir, the explicit promise that someone lived this experience compensates for a weaker structure.  The protagonist survived to write a book—there’s an implied arc right there!  But why not craft a work that is doubly strong, a story with the power of truth—it really happened—and the compelling drive of a well-structured plot? 

What are some plot points to identify amid the chaos of “what really happened”?  Begin with a disturbance to a pattern.  In a murder mystery, this is the dead body in the library.  What was the equivalent event in your experience?  Given this disruption, what did you need to do, and what were the obstacles?  Resistance can come in external form like circumstances or antagonistic humans.  There are also inner obstacles, limitations in you.

Which brings me to my next discovery.  The author of memoir is the implicit protagonist.  Although your inclination may be to hide behind the easier role of witness, it’s important to identify your active role in events, your needs and wants, your strengths and most important, your flaws, in order to bring out your own arc.  In other words, in strong memoir, the author/protagonist realizes something important about the world and changes in significant ways.  In fact, that’s what the memoir is really about.  As Patricia Hampl points out, the best memoirs give us glimpses not just of another world, but of a mind struggling with that world. 

A final note:  Unfortunately, no one can remember exact dialogue after the fact.  But fortunately, readers of memoir don’t expect the author to.  With your thorough knowledge of the people in your past, you can trust yourself to recreate the sort of language they might have used and craft scenes of emotional truth, if not verbatim records.  And readers love scenes. 

Author bio:
In an episode of sanity, Molly Best Tinsley left the English faculty at the US Naval Academy and moved west to Oregon to write full-time.  She has published a novel, My Life with Darwin, a story collection Throwing Knives, which won the Sandstone Prize and the Oregon Book Award, and the co-authored Satan’s Chamber, which one critic dubbed “the first feminist spy thriller.”  Her most recent book is the memoir Entering the Blue Stone.