Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Trouble With Memoir Writing

Writing memoir is a challenge. How do you take your life events and turn them into stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end? Where do find the conflict? How do you turn your friends and family into protagonists, antagonists, villains, sidekicks, alliances, and story characters that move the plot forward? How do find the plot in your own life?? I love this meme I saw that says, "Whenever life isn't going the way you want, jump up and yell, 'Plot Twist!' and walk away," or something to that effect.

Seeing your life as a story, or a series of stories, requires your brain to rewire itself in new ways. Suddenly, people start looking at you and wondering what you're up to, since you stare into space and furrow your brows at everyone, as you track motives, character arcs, and take note of the "dialogue" around you. This is true for most writers of any kind, but I think it's even more concentrated for a memoir writer.

I'm working on a series of vignettes, for a collection of memoir pieces, similar to what Dave Sedaris puts out. I'm hoping that after writing enough pieces, I'll recognize a theme, and that will guide the rest of the book. So far, I'm kind of stumped as to what the theme may be, but I'm trying not to put too much pressure on myself over it.

In the course of doing this work, I've had a few conversations with my parents, although I plan to have more, and one with my younger brother. We were raised in the same house, but have very different memories and ideas of family. It's always been fascinating to me, and I hope it will resonate with readers, too.

That is the big question, isn't it? A memoir must be personal, full of your unique stories, experiences, and point of view, but it also must resonate with readers and hopefully elicit an empathy, comradeship, and relatability. Readers need to identify with you, as a character, and want to follow you on your journey, whatever that might be. And it's not easy to write about yourself without sounding smug, pitiful, self-absorbed, or other unlikable traits. You have to look at the worst of yourself, as well as the best, to create a decent character of yourself. I think this is why so many people tend to write fictionalized accounts of their lives; just using their own experiences to base their novel's characters on.

Besides that, is there any memoir writer that doesn't worry about how the people in their lives will react to suddenly having their lives in the spotlight? How many times have I thought to myself, "I can't write that, my mother is going to read this!" *facepalm*

I'm also watching a lot of YouTube videos, as part of the research for a few pieces based around childhood influences. I'm not going to go into detail, but it's been fun!

One thing I've noticed is how different my process is for writing memoir from writing fiction. In fiction, I choose my characters and my setting, and let them go. I write what happens in my head. But in memoir, I take a seed, plant it on the page, and let it grow. I'm basically journalling, and I usually have three to five pages when I'm done. Then, with the help of some beta readers, I figure out what belongs and what doesn't, and what readers want to hear more about. Then I expand on those areas. I may do that three or four times, before I end up with something that feels polished. The final draft is usually eight to fifteen pages long, too. It's like I have to find the patch of ground, then dig and dig and dig before I get to the root of the story.

I'm usually pretty flabbergasted that anyone is interested in these tales, but glad to know it, of course. "Really? You want more details?" I ask, in disbelief, thinking I've written too much nonsense. It's extremely personal, and I haven't even delved into any of the traumatic stuff. I'm concentrating on character-building stories, at the moment. And I'm really digging it.