Friday, May 1, 2015

How to Keep Your Memoir from Being Just a Selfie

A writing colleague sent me this recent article from the Washington Post--a humorous look at how memoir has evolved.  One new direction is the selfie.  Look at me, in other words. 

Selfies can be quite entertaining.  If the selfie shows a unique angle on someone's life, and we want to learn more about that someone, it's worth the time.  The Post writer, Mark Athitakis,  breaks down his short list into categories of selfie-memoirs, such as "I'm Famous," "I'm Running for President," and "I Used to Be Dead but for Some Reason I'm Not Anymore."  You can imagine others:  "I Had a Screwed-Up Family but I Turned Out OK" or "I Survived Something Very Intense."

Nothing wrong with these, in my opinion, but it depends what else the book offers.  My colleague pointed out this key quote from Mark's article, which says it all:

"[The] nobler purpose of autobiography:  To tell a story not about the person doing the writing but about the subject they’ve lived through.  When I think of the recent memoirs I’ve admired - Edwidge Danticat’s “Brother, I’m Dying,” Howard Norman’s “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place,” Roz Chast’s “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”--what sticks in my mind are the places they evoke and the challenges they explore, not the people who wrote them."Although some transforming event is an essential foundations for most memoir, we read for the surrounds as well.  What is the universal aspect of that transforming event?  How does it reveal more than just you? 

I think of event as the building your story resides in.  It's also called the "outer story" and it keeps a memoir from being solely self-focused.  Make that event interesting, with a well-shown environment, an era or a location or a community that brings your personal story to a larger place. 

I once worked with a student who was writing a medical memoir--she had been through horrific events and somehow survived.  Her early drafts were all about her relief at being alive and her pain at going through this illness.  A well-taken selfie.  Eventually, as she matured as a writer, the book grew into a larger and more universal story.  It became a statement about survival, not just her own but all human survival in dire circumstances.

Hard to reach this, which is one reason memoirs are one of the toughest genres to pull off.  But worth working toward. 

How do you get there?  Realize that it takes time.  One of my students presented her memoir idea before a panel of published memoirists.  They told her most memoirs take an average of seven years to write.  This writer was shocked.  But then, as she worked more on her story, she realized the truth of this.  It takes time for the maturing of your perspective, and thus the maturing of your story, into a more universal level.

So, if you're writing a memoir, and you're not famous or running for president, you might want to consider this:  What else is in your story, beyond a selfie?  What is the bigger subject?

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