I like to teach memoir, because memoir bridges the space between fiction and non-fiction. I encourage students to employ tools of the fiction writer: character, setting, and plot. Fiction writers have three avenues from which to generate material: observation, imagination, and investigation. Memoirists have all these available as well.
One difference, it is said, between fiction and non-fiction, is that fiction has to make sense. The memoirists’ work does not have to “make sense,” because it is believed by both author and reader, to be “true.”
But a memoir, by definition, is drawn from memory, and memory is notoriously fallible. “Memory has its own story to tell,” says Tobias Wolff. Not only do humans view events through a “selfish” lens, we also remember them this way. This does not make them false.
I encourage students to make their stories vivid and interesting. Not to lie, but to employ what I call, The Buttercup Principle. A former class participant once wrote a piece about spending the summer on her grandfather’s farm. “My grandfather had a calf,” she wrote. “I think its name was Buttercup.”
Do you feel duped by her having given the calf a name that might not have been true? As soon as you hear the name can’t you picture that calf? I can. It’s a jersey in my version. It has a wide, wet, rubbery-looking nose, soft brown eyes, a cowlick on its forehead that sticks straight up, and it’s knock-kneed.
Making memoirs interesting does not mean making them up. (If you do that, just call it fiction.) It means make them colorful and alive. Add dialogue and detail, but only if they cleave close to the truth. As long as the fundamentals of the story are true, readers receive such embellishments with open arms.
Most importantly, though, memoir needs to find a universal truth. “Most good memoir turns out not to be about the memoirist at all…” says Bill Roorbach in Writing Life Stories, which he co-wrote with Kristen Keckler. “The reader becomes a stand-in for the I, and the life of the I becomes the life of the reader.”
We read other people’s stories to better understand and appreciate our own stories and lives. Therefore, the memoirist must answer the all-important question: so what? She must dig down to find the meaning beneath the events. Because it is this meaning that will resonate most deeply with the reader.
We often find, when we read a memoir, that long forgotten events in our own lives surface. We place ourselves into another’s situation and ask, What would I do? Would I have been so brave? Maintained such good humor? Chances are, of course, the memoirist was neither as brave nor good-humored at the time of the event, but rather gained those through the perspective of time. Looking back on an event is quite different from living through it. Also, the act of recalling and retelling, promotes learning. The author gains wisdom, temerity, and humor.
And it takes courage to look back and examine one’s life so closely that you can recreate it for another in a way that informs and entertains. It makes one vulnerable and exposed in a way only a few are willing.
All those who submit their work for publication or into a contest show this courage.
In beginning to tell your story you surpass probably fifty percent of people who say, “Boy, do I have a story to tell.” Half of them will never begin to tell it.
In completing your stories you surpass seventy-five percent of those with a story to tell. Some begin, few finish.
In submitting your work you surpassed ninety percent of those with stories to write and the gumption to write them. Very, very few take that final step and send it out into the world. Where, I am sorry to say, it will be judged.
I recently had the honor of judging such a contest. I enjoyed each and every one of the entries. Each had moments of greatness, of pathos, of humor, of beauty. I was asked to pick two winners, and so I went with the two that spoke most to me and possessed elements of good drama. Each had an “arc:” a beginning, middle, and end; presented vivid, sympathetic characters; delivered a “message;” and answered the question, “so what?” Each conveyed a deeper meaning, a universal truth, in the events.