In my years as a memoir teacher, editor, and coach, and as a memoirist myself, I’ve found that the greatest challenge for a personal writer is to create work that is meaningful to others. And the most crucial question a personal writer can ask, and keep asking, her material in an effort to meet that challenge is, WHO CARES?
An inspiring, tough-love quote that any serious memoirist should put on a post-it above her desk comes from New York Times columnist David Carr, about his memoir of drug abuse, The Night of the Gun: “Personal narrative is not simply opening up a vein and letting the blood flow toward anyone willing to stare.” Amen to that—what personal narrative, like any other genre of writing, is about, is telling a good story.
Two important bits to keep in mind: 1. What is, rightly, profound to you is not automatically profound to others, and 2. Your whole life isn’t relevant. The challenge is to sculpt that marble, leaving substantial chunks of it to the side, to allow the statue within—the true story within the story—to emerge. As memoirists, we strive dually, to achieve uniqueness and at the same time, universality: How can I make this story precisely mine? And simultaneously, how can I make my story interesting even to readers who haven’t shared my experience? Like James Joyce said, “in the particular is contained the universal.”
A little exercise that I’ve found useful in this getting-over-yourself endeavor: Come up with an especially emotionally significant moment in your life, and write a short (1-2 page) personal essay about it. But two rules: no naming the emotion (“I feel overjoyed/lonely/terrified/etc.”), and no first person. Instead, write in the second person (“you”), externalizing that emotion—that is, describing either how it physically manifested (sweaty palms? headache? stomach cramps? heavy limbs?) or how the environment around you looked when you were experiencing that emotion. Also good to write in the present tense, to get at the immediacy of the moment, really mine that memory as if you were there right now.
If you found that fun and helpful, there’s more: Under my rubric The Vertical Pronoun, I work individually with personal writers on their memoirs—whether they’ve got completed first drafts in need of sharp edits or want a sounding board for various amorphous ideas that are percolating—via e-mail and phone, so wherever you are in the world is dandy. But if you do live in the NYC area, I’m offering live group workshops, starting in April in Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. And if you happen to find yourself in the heartland this July, I’ll be teaching three memoir classes at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, always a grand old time.