Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What's the "Me" in Memoir?--Avoiding Overwriting When You're Writing about Your Life


Memoirs--sometimes they feel to us writers like we're talking to ourselves, not seeing the forest for the trees. But isn't that what memoir is? Or is it?
What exactly is a memoir? And how does a writer become "the writer" and not "The Writer" (see last week's post, below, on the dangers of The Writer's presence in books)?

A reader from Louisiana wrote this about last week's post and writing exercise: "I don't really know what a memoir is supposed to be. Am I not suppose to write about my experiences, what I saw, felt, and thought? Have I been writing all this too much as an ego trip? Should I tell the story as if it is someone else, using the word she rather than I? Should I just forget thinking of it as a book, write it simply for a possible interested family member after I'm gone?"

Excellent question. It was triggered by this writer's concern that she was supposed to absent herself from her own story, and how was that possible? I wrote last week's post (see below) about writers who are way too present in their stories, who take on two roles: (1) they sit the center-stage to tell their story AND (2) they stand on the sidelines to interpret the story for us readers.

In memoir, you are the main character (makes sense, doesn't it?). You fill the center-stage role. But if you are nervous about whether readers will "get" the message of your story, you might be tempted to be the stage manager as well. This is the mistake.

Alison Smith, author of the wonderful Name All the Animals, wrote about becoming aware of her role in this memoir. Her original drafts were more about her brother's sudden death than about her own life, but she soon realized she was leaving herself out of her own story. The death was the memoir's "triggering event" (in book-writing language, what started the story). How the death affected Alison and her family was the story itself. She had to assume the center-stage role. Memoir is about me.

But it's not about me plus ME (center stage plus stage manager). The writer is important, but not The Writer.

Alison never tries to put herself between the reader and her story. She isn't constantly interpreting what's happening, making sure the reader gets it. Some writing instructors call this "overwriting"--you are writing, then you are making sure we get it by repeating what you just wrote, saying it in another way--overwriting your words. "Betty ran her finger down the wall and checked for dust." What does that tell you? She's neat, fastidious even, obsessive maybe. The writer doesn't need to add "Betty was obsessed with cleanliness."

Yes, in a memoir you feel, think, say, do. But instead of adding more about why you are feeling, thinking, saying, and doing the thing, you just let the story show it. You don't need to interpret if the actions are strong. We get it.

Another way to look at this: Actions, events, and dialogue shows us. No need to tell us, as well.

Keep yourself in your memoir, by all means. But take out The Writer who is on the sidelines, stage managing, telling us what it all means. Confusing and unnecessary at best; obnoxious at worst.

Read some examples if you want. A few great memoirs that feature a strong main character (the writer) but no interpretation (The Writer) for the story are:

Alison Smith's Name All the Animals
Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments
Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes
Dani Shapiro's Slow Motion
Nuala O'Faolain's Almost There

Closely read a chapter. Notice if you feel the author's presence interpreting the actions and being too present in the story--taking away from your engagement with the book.