On Memoir Writing: A Memoir Editor Answers Questions

Originally I intended this post to be part of one I wrote about my experiences writing a memoir. I posed some questions to my editor, Lori Handleman PhD, of Clear Voice Editing. In typical fashion, her responses were so thorough and thoughtful that I thought they deserved their own guest post.

Below I inserted the questions above her answers. Also, she references Small Town Ho, my memoir, just to clarify. This is a really enlightening post on memoir writing- hope it helps!

Q: In your opinion, what separates a good memoir from a great one?

A: What separates the good from the great? Either a fantastic, unusual voice, or an extremely powerful story told well enough. It can’t just be another “I was born a poor black child” or “Mommy hated me and Daddy was mean.” If it’s a fantastic, unusual voice, readers are in for the long haul, whatever the topic. That voice might be funny, like in Small Town Ho, or it might be poetic, like in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, but in that work, the voice is so engaging that the reader almost doesn’t care what the story is about or where it goes. Trauma memoirs are a dime a dozen, and it’s tempting to say that the story has to be as crushing as Escape from Camp 14, about a harrowing escape from a North Korean prison camp, but then again people loved Glass Castle, which felt like small potatoes trouble to me (and badly written). If a writer combines wit and trauma (like the Augusten Burroughs memoir factory, or Mary Karr for that matter), readers will line up to buy every single one they write. Honestly, though, I don’t think there’s a universal factor that separates good from great.

Q: I wrote in my piece that a good memoir should have a story arc, as well as a great voice and rhythm. Could you comment?

A: Story arc, voice, rhythm — I kind of addressed this in my previous answer. Story arc isn’t really required as the form has been blown apart. Anne Lamott has a corner on the market of essay collections as memoir. There is no overarching ‘arc’ in her memoir collections, although by the end of the book you do see a shape and form. Memoir as a form is loose enough to hold all kinds of forms, and I think one of the most important factors is voice.

Really, I would argue that memoir = voice. What is a memoir, really, except the writer’s unique and very personal take on his or her own experience. It isn’t the experience itself, it’s the writer’s take on it. It’s the writer’s understanding of it, view of it, telling of it. Without voice you have biography, or maybe autobiography.

Q: Could you comment on the replications an author might feel about publishing personal and potentially incendiary stories? Any precautions?

A: Publishing personal stuff is TRICKY. If at all possible, wait until everyone involved is dead. No matter how generous you think you are being, people will bristle because they still see themselves differently. And if you have difficult material, hard stories to tell, you can guarantee that there will be problems. In some cases it makes sense to contact a literary attorney. I had a client who is living in hiding from her psychopath ex-husband, and the literary attorney made her change her husband’s job (he was an airline pilot), the jobs of all the friends she mentioned, the cities they lived in, her own job and all possible identifying characteristics. In some way it didn’t even feel like her story anymore, but the stakes were so very high (see: psychopath). Ordinarily, though, publishing personal stuff as it involves others is a delicate maneuver. If at all possible, show it to the people you’re writing about when you’re near the final form. Mary Karr (The Art of Memoir) talks about that at length, so that’s a good book to read.

But for your own self, writing personal stuff is another question. You have to be honest — which doesn’t mean opening up a vein and bleeding all over the page, necessarily, but if you aren’t only going to tell the surface, or if you’re not going to talk about what’s real, no one is going to care. Writing memoir involves a risk, it involves vulnerability, and unless you’re willing to be vulnerable to some extent, you’ll end up with a confection that no one is interested in.

Q: Should a memoir answer some burning question?

A: Should it answer a question? If there is a question involved! What would be the question in Small Town Ho? Trauma narrative memoirs often have a question about how much a person can endure, how people survive, how do people make sense, how do they rebuild, etc., and in that case there is likely a question. Some memoirs are about a life-changing event — a woman’s young husband dies so she goes to Paris, the trip they always meant to take, and in the process she finds a new life for herself — is there a question there? Yes, kind of, but it’s her question.

Q: When you edited my book, you made me write in “scenes.” How important are scenes in a memoir?

A: Scenes are required, even if you’re doing essayistic disconnected chapters. Otherwise you’ve just got unrelenting exposition and no one is going to sit still for that, even if they have no idea that it’s “exposition” that’s boring them to tears. Memoir needs telling, and it needs scenes, and it needs insight.

Her parting comments are so great, that I decided they needed their own box:

Honestly, the most critical thing I’ve learned as I’ve been studying memoir for the last dozen years is the importance of voice. It’s really JUST voice. If you flatten out the prose so it’s academic-perfect, and the stories are little perfectly told jewel boxes and it perfectly follows some idea of form, god just kill me. I’d never read that memoir. I want to know what it is to be another person. I want to know what it is to live that life, to see the world through those eyes. I want to close the book and feel like I’ve experienced another way of being in the world. Voice, voice, voice, voice, voice. Beginning to end, voice.

One thought on “On Memoir Writing: A Memoir Editor Answers Questions

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