Writing Memoir? Pack Light, and Ask Yourself: "What is this About?"
Written by
Marion Roach Smith
February 2012
Written by
Marion Roach Smith
February 2012

It’s Day Four in my guest editing week at SheWrites, and it’s time to let you in on a little secret. The topics we cover today are the least favorites of my students. Nobody likes these, which suggests that these are the most important of all ten points on my Memoir Manifesto.

So let’s master them, shall we?

Pack Light

Writing is a form of packing, and you always want to be on the move, so packing light should be the ethic, no matter the length of the piece. And while this is hard to grasp, keep it in mind. Pack light. We’re not embarking on a cruise for a year, or even going on a weekend trip. A blog post, a personal essay, even a full-length memoir, is not about stuffing in as much as you can, but rather about illustrating something correctly. No matter how many words it is, the piece is just a day trip with someone listening in—the reader. You are not writing the history of the world, or even your world. Wanting to be heard, the temptation is to go big, and throw in everything we think we might need. But it’s a mistake. And so we must unpack, casting off all non-essentials, and along the way, learning what to leave out.

Ego being what it is, when given permission to write about ourselves, we all tend to spill all those things we’ve done, thoughts we’ve thought, and people we’ve known, since they all seem wildly important. And they are. To us, though not necessarily to them, those other people, the readers.

Appreciating the difference between the personal tale and its value, and universal tale and its appeal, is hard-won. It’s the same with your own tale. Of course it’s of value to you, but how are you going to make it of value to me, as well? Here’s how: Make it small. Make it rare. Make it a first for me as a reader, and I’ll remember it forever. Make it of value to someone else, even if—actually, no, especially if—those intended readers are your family. What could be more important than that? Or, as I’ve learned, more difficult? How to do this?

What is this about?

Ask yourself: What is this about? Read your piece and answer the question. The answer to this might be something as precise as “revenge.” That’s manageable. I would argue that something as small as a blog post or a personal essay can be reduced to one word. In all forms of commercial writing—from screenplays, fiction, non-fiction and journalism—this word will appear in what is called “the pitch,” the one sentence you use to sell the story to someone else. 

So pitch yourself, asking “What is this about?” Perhaps the answer will be “revenge,” “mercy,” or “betrayal.” Wow. I once thought that memoir was about me. It's not. Memoir is about something, and you are the illustration of that thing. That is, if you want anyone to read it.

Let me give you an example.

Here are the opening words of a book by Margaret Roach. The former editorial director of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, Margaret left that job, and wrote what is now known in the trade as a “dropout memoir.” Entitled, And I Shall Have Some Peace There, the paperback came out this month. Let’s see how she opens her book.

  She of nobody else’s bidding: That is who I am now—someone who has not done what anyone else said since July 2008, though not because I am either disobedient or a slacker. Hardly. Thirty-two years of corporate servitude are in my past, and there will be no more promotions or pay stubs, thrilling facts I celebrate with a long-overdue vigil for my self, a one- woman sit-in in the woods.

            Friends and colleagues warned that I would become depressed, isolated, perhaps worse when I walked away from my lucrative, esteem-laden career … on the last day of 2007, leaving the peak earning years in my wake and relocating to my longtime weekend home and garden in a New York State hamlet where dairy cows not so long ago outnumbered people. Many stories of retreat are tales instigated by a trauma, or depression. I was never depressed in my old life; I was just strangely and terribly lonely, isolated despite being surrounded by six hundred colleagues daily, more than a quarter of whom worked for me, and living in a city of millions.

             I was a big success, people told me, but the secret I never spoke in reply or anytime was my belief that I had long ago given up on me—the one whom others, in equations of family, love, and work, relied upon—choosing the easy route over a path toward things they don’t necessarily pay you or pat you on the back for.

            I remember when it happened: In my insecure early twenties, already a college dropout and wanting the absolution of proving I was no dummy, I took a job that placed a bet on my intellect over creativity. It was the surer horse but (as with many favorites) a comparative dullard to that sexy long shot of allowing one’s potential sufficient time to percolate. Could I write fiction, or be a photographer? We would never know; right then and there, I turned my back on possibility.             Promotions at the newspaper I signed on to at first came easily, and suddenly I had fallen into the  burning ring of fire (yes, bound by wild desire ); money talked. True, the tether to the old life was mostly a financial one, its other shiny-but-searing edge the attachment to ego-fueling professional esteem. 

            And it burns, burns, burns. 

             If I was so successful, I wanted to say back to my best friend and my accountant and the guy who cuts my hair and everyone else lovingly offering praise all those years, then why had I pushpinned a cryptic note to myself on the kitchen wall, a plaintive shorthand list called Tolerances, as in, how much can you tolerate of what for how long? Why were all my years-old diaries aching with phrases like the hit-by-car feelings of my workday and Where is my creativity? and that clincher, 

Who or what am I waiting for

            So from a role in The Devil Wears Mara (as in MaxMara; though I never asked one personal errand of an assistant in all my executive years, nor threw a coat or handbag at anybody), I finally walked away and shape-shifted to bumpkin-in-training in the mere flash of time it takes to drive 120 miles. Single, childless, and technically even pet free, I started up the road to start again in my garden in the woods.

             Right away, though, I began hearing the voice that would keep asking for an answer I did not have:  Who am I if I am not mroach@marthastewart dot com any longer?  As if that were not enough, the confrontational facet of Margaret manifested as that raspy voice broadened its inquisition: If I am neither working nor in a personal partnership, in service to some master or another, who am I? 

             I am nothing more than a work in progress, thank you—the truest answer I have ever given to that question. I am just me, which is (apologies to my old friend Martha) a good thing, even without the stripes and status that my onetime titles and W-2s and all the other “accomplishments” seemed to imply. This latest incarnation, which is at once a simpler and a harder one, began just as the formative childhood version had—in stretchy, shapeless clothing, with most waking hours spent either on the floor puzzling things out or parked safely in the one same seat, trying to learn to focus the gaze, a bit of a bobblehead all over again.


When I asked Margaret what her book is “about,” she wrote me this:

"When I sat down to write that, I thought I would be telling a dropout’s story about walking away from my fastlane city career to live in solitude in my rural garden. But when I sharpened it a bit, I realized it would be a story creating a new identity, and of breaking a very old habit of putting everything off because (as I used to say about a hundred times daily, between clenched teeth): “I don’t have time.”

You can read more from Margaret, as well as purchase her book, on her award-winning website.

Tomorrow: Memoir Manifesto, points seven and eight.

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  • Marion Roach Smith

    Hi, Julie: Many thanks for this. You are right on in your comment. Good common sense is a huge part of writing memoir. Do check our Margaret's book. It's gorgeous.

    Hi, Anna. Yup. Pack light. It will let your writing take you everywhere you need to go.

    Yes, Grace: Being mindful of what the reader needs to know is the key. Such a good reminder.

    Yes, Heather. Absolutely. The elevator speech. brilliant. I had not thought of that. Thank you. I look forward to seeing you at the March 31st workshop. Thanks for signing up.

    Hi, Pamela.

    Many thanks for bring up the difficulties of editing one's own story.

    It is savagely more difficult to cut scenes from your life than it is to excise a paragraph on school taxes or solid waste management from a newspaper column. We get touchy when told that the tale of the family dog has to go, or that the funeral scene needs to be trimmed, perhaps by killing the reprinted 27-minute eulogy you gave. No one likes this kind of direction, especially when writing about a sick child or a deceased spouse, and as I suggest revisions in the class, some of my long-term students will appear to slide under the table, not wanting to make eye contact with either me or the person disagreeing with my cuts.

    To make the piece work, it’s essential to murder your darlings. It's an expression first penned by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, and one I wrote about on my blog earlier this week. Have a look.

  • Pamela Olson

    Beautiful, thank you for this. We are all works in progress... It's good to remember this. It's so easy to get lost in "accomplishments" and "money" and "titles" and forget the basics. You aren't a list of boxes that are checked or things you've done. You're always just here, now, doing your best, and hopefully enjoying it.

    Regarding packing light -- my memoir had to cover a year in its first 13 pages, a week in Chapter 2, three weeks in Chapter 3, six months in Chapters 4-8, and a year in Chapters 9-12.  It was bizarre spending a sentence to cover six months and then spending five pages to cover 5 minutes. And of course, in all cases, 50-99% of what actually happened had to be left out. It was weird to hack down and carve out my life like that -- sort of like carving something out of a block of marble, I guess. But for a delicate sculpture, you have to hack and carve like mad.

  • Heather Marsten

    Thank you. I look forward to reading your sister's book and checking on the ones you've written.  I guess packing light is similar to having an elevator speech where you pare the theme of your novel down to a sentence or two.  What I wonder is how much of a bite of life can one take? If a theme is carried out from childhood to present, as long as the theme is adhered to, does that count as packing light?  I am looking forward to your March 31 workshop.  

  • Grace Peterson

    Congrats to your sister on her just published memoir. I've been to her blog several times, being a garden blogger myself.

    With the first 50 or so drafts of my manuscript, it was long and drawn out and full of every memory I could muster out of my fuzzy brain. I think the revision process has grown me substantially as a writer. I like your analogy of packing a suitcase. Being mindful of how much the reader needs to know is so critical, isn't it? I think it can only come with time and finely honing the craft.  Great post!  

  • Julie Farrar

    I'm enjoying your posts on SW and on your website.  Much of what you say I've heard before.  I don't mean that in a negative way.  It is just universal writing wisdom -- if you want to write, then just write.  I do get caught up in writing prompts, craft books, etc. as a way to procrastinate.  At least when I'm using them I'm not sitting at my blank computer screen waiting for my brain to bleed.  But it's the same bad habit that made my dissertation take forever.  I had a brilliant advisor and I was trying so hard to be her that I couldn't get my own thoughts on paper.  One of my other committee members said, "Just get the damn thing written, Julie.  It's not the last thing you'll ever write."  I feel like I'm putting so much emotional energy just trying to be brilliant with this memoir that I've crowded out all other ideas for any other piece of writing.

    As for Margaret Roach's book, I've heard of it and I plan on reading it.  I was her once.  I'm still creating my new identity.