On Writing: It’s All Memoir

Darkness behind, camera flash up ahead.

A lot of people have stories they want to tell about their lives and some of them have come up to me and say “hey Erik, you’re a writer,” (accurate) “I want to write this memoir…” My responses to this are probably not what they might expect. First off, memoir is a totally different publishing universe than fiction and while I have a kind of maybe if you squint understanding of how the fiction machine works, I don’t know anything at all about memoir business. I do know something about storytelling though and what makes a readable book. So that’s where I focus my advice and it starts with above all else, lie.

Storytelling is about what you choose to say, when, and in what order and it’s equally about what you choose not to say. The instinct when setting down to write a memoir is to tell a story from beginning to end. Start with your cousin Steve because he was there, oh and also that neighbor across street, and it was probably 1996 because Bob Dole was all over the news, and then and then. That’s not a story. That’s a recitation. It’s a grocery list of events. It might be interesting to the people that are on the grocery list but to everyone else it’s lacking the compelling parts that make stories universal. Which doesn’t mean your memoir ISN’T compelling or universal. It just means you need to fight the grocery list urge and edit. You need to lie. I know your cousin Steve was there but <magic flash!> now he’s gone! Also, Bob Dole? We can move on from Bob Dole.

Good storytelling is focused. It’s intentional. It’s not the same thing as talking to your friends at a party about That One Time. Your friends have context. They have YOU. Go into a room of strangers and you’d tell the story differently. Like, maybe say “hi” and put on a “My Name Is” sticker with your name on it. When you write a story your audience, ideally, are all strangers. You need to introduce yourself. You need to introduce everyone. And cousin Steve isn’t important just because he was there. Cousin Steve, in fact, is hurting your memoir. You need to get rid of him and everything else that doesn’t serve your story’s purpose.

“Wait,” you are maybe asking me right now in this imagined conversation we are having: “but what is my story’s purpose?” Easy answer: I don’t know! You need to know that. THAT is, in fact, the first thing you need to decide before you commit yourself to a story(fiction or memoir). What do you want out of writing a story? Common answers are to entertain, inform, relate, or evoke some kind of emotional response or responses in readers. Some memoirs are about grief and the grief process. Some are about hope. You might be thinking “well my memoir’s purpose is to make me all that fat memoirist money” and that, my theoretical uninformed capitalist friend, is not it.

You might also be thinking that writing your story down would be therapeutic. That 1996 election with Bob Dole was really upsetting for you and you have feelings about it you want to work that out. I think that’s awesome! But that’s therapy. That’s not writing a book. Writing a book can also be therapy (usually is actually) but there should be more to it. You need to remember that the story is as much about the audience as the storyteller and if the audience isn’t connecting to it, you have a problem. Audiences connect with shared emotion and experience and I hate to break it to you, not a lot of people are still having nightmares about Bob Dole.

The good news is that people are fundamentally similar beasts and we all want to find common ground. You might be surprised how easy it is for a person to relate to a totally unexpected thing in a totally unexpected way if the give them the space and opportunity to do it. And you guessed it: you create space in a story by getting rid of cousin Steve. You create opportunity in a story by lying. You don’t have to wholesale invent new things (hey there, James Frey) but you might move things around a little. When I say “moved around a little” I don’t mean (necessarily) moving your memoir’s climax from the October 16th 1996 debate between incumbent president Bill Clinton and Former Senator Bob Dole at the University of San Diego moderated by America’s most trusted newsman, Jim Lehrer. I mean moving around when you present this climax. Some people assume stories start at the beginning, chronologically, and end with the end, chronologically. This is grocery list thinking. Stories move around. They digress. You memoir could start with election night and then flashback. It could start in modern day. It could start anywhere. It can hop. Your story is a frog. You choose where it lands based on your chosen purposes. You lie (edit) to present the story that you need to present.

You still with me? Because here’s where we go ask Alice. Memoir and fiction– they’re coming from you and they slip back and forth. I wrote an autobiographical thing once and spent a paragraph on this close friend of mine’s sad blue eyes. My close friend has brown eyes. I didn’t do this on purpose. Fiction accidentally slipped into my memoir. And it will happen a lot because memory is imprecise and you fill bits in as you go. On the flip side, fiction will always have “real” things slip in. Sometimes you write a story down and it takes years before you look at it and realize “oh boy this is actually about Ross Perot being excluded by the presidential debate commission.” A story well-told is a part of you and you are all memoir whether you want to be or not.

Anyway. That’s what I say to people that want to write memoir.

RIP Norm Macdonald.

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