Writing Memoir? Make Your Argument and Include Transcendence
Written by
Marion Roach Smith
February 2012
Written by
Marion Roach Smith
February 2012

It’s our sixth day together, meaning it's time for the last two points of my ten-point Memoir Manifesto. Ready to wrap things up, She Writers? I suspect you are. You’ve got work to do.

Make your argument

Every piece of non-fiction is an argument. Maybe your argument is simply, "life is better when you garden," or "parenting is about getting it wrong more than it is about getting it right," or "the key to a good marriage is looking interested even when you're not." Maybe you simply want to argue that yours is the best dog in the world. Or the worst.

In pretty much any piece of nonfiction, no matter its length, your argument can be reduced to one sentence. Maybe that sentence is life is better if you garden. Or that life is really hard until you get a good cat to love. Is that snickering I hear? You’ll stop snickering when you remember how many copies Marley & Me sold worldwide. Subtitled “Life and love with the world’s worst dog,” the movie version alone broke all Christmas day records with a $14.75 million opening. The book is now a franchise. What was its argument? Something like dogs teach people something about themselves that people cannot learn on their own. Or even bad dogs make people better. Or, well, you try it.

And then let’s go back to that cat who is going to improve your life, specifically that sentence about that cat, and let’s break it down by each phrase: Life. Is hard. Really hard. Unless. You get. A good cat. To love.

Those are the seven chapters of your book. Don’t believe me?

Life: Who you are. Is really hard: First show us hard, then show us really hard. One chapter each. Unless: This is where you show us that you are open to alternatives. You get: This is where you show us all the things you’ve tried in order to make your life better, like speed dating, dieting, drinking heavily, perhaps. A good cat: Maybe you’ve had bad cats or good cats. Tell us. To love: Show us living with that one good cat. Maybe there is a sad ending. Or a happy one. Or a sad one turned happy when the good cat dies and you have the courage to try again with a new cat.

Simple? Maybe. Too simple? I’ve heard that argument a bazillion times, to which I can only reply: You want this writing thing to be more difficult than it already is? Why?

Include transcendence

I’ve read that the great screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky kept a little nudge on his desk that said, “He gets it,” and I understand how that could be the sole encouragement a screenwriter might need. In any good movie, someone has to change, and be transformed. He will reach some transcendence, no matter how small. To do so, the protagonist must “get” the idea in play. It’s the same with memoir.

Most good memoir is a story of some form of transcendence—I left; I sobered up; I got smart; I finally appreciated the husband I have. I would argue that the very best pitch in the world is “I left,” as in “I left one way of thinking and adopted another,” or "I left the abusive relationship,” or “I left that religion for this;” “I left treating my body like a dumpster and and started eating this way;” “I left judging myself against the model of my mother,” or “I Ieft. Period.”

Something has to move, however incrementally, for us to want to watch it. Simple as that. And no, you do not have to leave the abusive relationship, find a good one, get married and produce perfect, beautiful children for us to be interested. All you have to do is take us up to the moment of intuition – I think I should leave; I know I should leave; maybe I can leave – and we’re interested. Remember: Small moments, though now the assignment is small moments of change.

And that’s it.

You’ve walked though the Memoir Manifesto with me. I was delighted for the company.

I’ll be here on She Writes. So come visit me.

And write on.

Marion Roach Smith is the author of four books. Her most recent book is The Memoir Project, A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life (Grand Central, 2011). You read more about it here.

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  • Marcie Bridges

    Don't worry, your secret is safe with me. ;)

  • Judy Berna

    Oh, he is a keeper, Marcie! He can drive me crazy sometimes, but I lucked out, marrying that one. So many times I make a situation so complicated, and he'll hear me out, then sum up the answer in a single sentence. And if I'll let my defenses down, and actually hear him, he's usually right on. Even my older sister, who has a long, healthy marriage, will sometimes call me and say, "Ask your Jeff this question for me..I need clarity..."
    I wrote a post about him (he hates being written about!) a while back. Here's the link: http://justonefoot.blogspot.com/2008/06/undercover-super-hero.html  He's always there when people need him, and he always answers the call.
    And don't forget, this is the man who didn't bat an eye when I told him his wife wanted to cut off her foot. He is truly a keeper (but don't tell him I said so...it'll give him a big head!) :)

  • Marcie Bridges

    Judy, I hopped over to your blog and read your post. What a lovely husband you have, to mute the TV and turn his full attention to you; so often these days, that does not happen, even in our own homes. I, too, will be waiting to read your soon-to-be published story!

  • Marion Roach Smith

    You are most welcome, Judy. Write on.

  • Judy Berna

    Thanks so much, for the encouragement, and the kind comments on my blog. A few encouraging sentences can make a writer's day! And I did ponder my project, all day, as I unpacked endless boxes. It's fun to have something not 'move related' to think about. Thanks again for taking the time to pop over to my blog.

  • Marion Roach Smith

    Hi, Judy. Thanks so much for begin in touch. I went to your site and read your fine post. Great job. Please see my comment there. Anyone else reading this, go have a look. Judy: Don't forget to ask yourself what your book is about. I think it will appeal to a wide audience. Ask yourself the question, and edit to that answer.

  • Grace Peterson

    She gets it!  Thanks, Marion. 

  • Judy Berna

    I have so enjoyed these posts about memoir, after being sent here by my friend Katrina Kenison. She has been a huge encouragement to me, as I plod away, getting my memoir manuscript ready for publication.

    I have to make a quick comment about Galileo's dilemma and say that I really cling to that idea, only using what this piece needs, and leaving the rest. To help myself make peace with leaving behind special tidbits, I actually do what I literally do, when I'm in Target, surrounded by so many 'pretties'. I tell myself, 'they'll be here when I come back, another day. I don't have to hoard them today'.

    I appreciate that picture frame, that gorgeous bed cover, then walk away with my dish soap and toilet paper. I've done the same with this memoir. Early versions were packed with stories of my childhood, growing up in a huge foster family and making peace with being one of the natural kids, sometimes neglected in the name of helping the troubled kids. Then I realized that my book is not about the foster care feelings, it was about my withered foot, and why I chose to have it amputated when I was in my thirties.

    So I cut out the foster care stories (that I had worked so hard to write!) and put them aside, telling them that they would be perfect for another book. They now sit quietly, waiting for their turn, never truly discarded, but instead just temporarily shelved.

    Maybe Galileo did see all the other fun stuff at Walmart, stuff he knew would be fun to take apart and explore, but he was able to tell himself, 'No, this one piece is all I need for now. But I will be back...'

    Thanks again for this series of posts, Ms. Roach. It was fun reading through them, while my house is quiet and the family sleeps. I will hash over your words many times today in my head, as we dive into unpacking moving boxes. Then some time soon, when I sit down to write again, I will use the hashed over ideas to make my own writing better.

    If you have time, here's the post on my blog, about my memoir, called "Just One Foot: How Amputation Cured My Disability", which I hope to have out by this summer.  http://justonefoot.blogspot.com/2012/01/book-deal.html

    Very Sincerely,

    Judy Berna