In the last column, I discussed the many reasons for writing memoir. Once you determine why you want to write, and perhaps have some idea of your theme or themes, you need to consider the next question. “Who?” Who do you imagine reading this? What impact do you want your writing to have on your readers?
This is an important step omitted by many would-be memoirists. You must define your audience — and write for it.
For example, a writer might create a very different memoir for his family from the one he would send to a literary publisher. How do you write for a specific audience? By finding common ground on which you and your readers relate.
“But I’m a 75-year-old farm wife in the Ozarks,” you may say, “and my grandson plays in a punk rock group in New York City. How can I ever relate to him?”
The universal through the individual
One way to relate to your audience is to explore the universal through the individual. This is the heart of literature and why it endures for centuries.
You share with your punk rock grandson, and every other human being, fear and anxiety, triumph and elation, love and rage and regret.
As J.K. Rowling said in her Harvard commencement address, “Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.” We can do this because the universality of our emotions connects us.
So you want to choose events of your life that illustrate emotional truth, but then you must make the details very specific.
Never be general or vague. Don’t say that you felt angry — or even worse, use a cliché like: “my blood boiled.” Rather, describe carefully how you felt when the cigarette girl kept flirting with Grandpa, then a handsome soldier, at the U.S.O. canteen.
Of course, you may not remember every detail. You may only remember that you were angry. That’s OK — this is why memoir is called creative nonfiction.
You don’t have to adhere strictly to the facts. You are allowed to embellish it, embroider it, and enhance it. Ironically, what we invent is often more true than what we remember.
Not that you will invent an imaginary life and call it memoir. That would be dishonest. But the goal is to seek to present the truth of a situation through specific sensory details like the sound of your heels on the canteen floor as you strode across it, or the feeling that the roots of your hair were on fire.
Another way to bring memoir alive is through dialogue. But who can remember the specific words said in any conversation? Usually we just remember the gist of it.
Beginning writers often make the mistake of summarizing conversations, and I see this problem more in memoir than in fiction.
But dialogue takes us into the scene. Don’t just tell us you let that cigarette girl have it. We want to hear what you said to her! So, even if you can’t remember exactly, paint the scene using words that convey the truth of the event.
If you wish to be truly known, you must give emphasis to presenting rich details of events that illustrate your passions and fears, that show your feelings and reactions, that explore the challenges you faced and how those changed you.
The use of the universal to relate to your audience will work with any audience, including that punk rock grandson. But another way to reach family members or others with a shared past is through stories that retie connections.
Think long and hard about everything you have shared. Make a list. Whom do you both know? What time have you spent together? What might your grandson remember from childhood visits to the farm?
Take each of those threads and use it to connect to other events. Did your grandson love that old farm dog, Trail? Does he know, or remember, how you found her as a puppy, tangled in a blackberry thicket?
What else was happening at that time? Maybe his mother had gone to New York to act off Broadway, and you found comfort for your worry in that whimpering furball. What other stories involved Trail through the years?
By taking these sorts of shared connections and following their threads back and forward and, most importantly, deeper, you can create a memoir that is a true legacy to your children and grandchildren — one that will help them to know you and the times you lived through.
Memoir is much more than a litany of events. Memoir is an exploration of one individual’s unique journey. It is a celebration of life. One life. All life.
No wonder it’s popular.
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Laura Parker Castoro (lauracastoro.com) will be teaching a memoir workshop entitled Family Folklore at the Writers’ Colony on Oct. 20. Cost for the all-day workshop is $45. For more information and to register, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 479 292-3665.