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  • Get Over Yourself! Some musings on the art and craft of memoir
This blog was featured on 07/11/2016
Get Over Yourself! Some musings on the art and craft of memoir
Contributor
Written by
Sarah Saffian
March 2011
Contributor
Written by
Sarah Saffian
March 2011

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.

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Comments
  • Robyn Michele Levy

    Good advice! I am currently at the end of the long process of writing my memoir and I am grateful and lucky to have a fantastic editor. She is helping me to focus the story.

    Personally, the greatest challenge I am facing is being honest -- particularly when it comes to complex issues and relationships. The quote I turn to again and again is at the beginning of Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle: Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.

    So I try to tell my truth.

    It's not always easy.

    BTW, my book is called Most of Me, Surviving my Medical Meltdown. There is a blurb about it on my website:  http://robynlevygallery.wordpress.com

    best,

    Robyn

  • Katherine Jenkins

    Excellent post. My memoir will be published spring 2012 and what you write here is definitely key. Sculpting your story is so important. While uniqueness and universal appeal are also equally important, asking and answering the question "Why am I telling this story?" has been the most important piece for me.

  • Thanks!  I started blogging my childhood memories, just as a warm up for my "real" writing.  I thought it might be fun for my family to read.  I am still surprised that what I write resonates with all ages.  I have readers from India, China, Australia, and Iowa.  Who knew?  Maybe this will be my next book!

  • Kristen

    Sarah - Thank you so much for this - it's very helpful! The quote by David Carr is very poignant, and something I will remember.

  • Sharon D. Dillon

    Thank you for the info, Sarah. I'm struggling with my memoir because I'd like others to avoid some of life's traps that I fell into. I want enough of my story to make it personal yet generic enough that the reader can see his/herself and want to make changes.

  • Christina Brandon

    Thanks for that "who cares" reminder! It helps narrow the focus of some unwieldy pieces.

  • Jo Vraca

    Amen to "Your whole life isn’t relevant". I'm ghostwriting an autobiography of an 82 year-old Holocaust survivor and, while so much of her life is compelling, it's only at this 3rd draft that I'm coming to terms with the word "CUT". If the event adds nothing to the narrative at all, get rid of it! It may have been interesting in itself but if it's too brief and does not act a segway into the next stage of the story, I'm being ruthless. Must admit though, it hurts!

  • Jennifer Hazard

    I'm working on this and it's very enlightening, the focus on the physical and sensory both sharpens and dis-empowers the memory at the same time...

  • Sarah Saffian

    Appreciate the tip, Cathy!

  • Sarah Saffian

    Thanks much everyone for these fabulous comments. Wow, if we got all these women in a room together for a workshop, that would be wildly fulfilling for all, methinks.. (For those who don't live in the NYC area, my plan is to lead virtual workshops online in the future; for now, individual writing coaching/editing/consulting is all I can do via e-mail..)

  • Jessica Powers

    Thanks for sharing this advice! I'm a novelist embarking on a memoir later this year so I feel like a beginning writer again!

  • Brenda Moguez

    I'm sure you've heard this often, but that is brilliant advice. We all have stories, some are more riveting than others are, and the truth is, not every one of those stories is as amazing to others as it is to us, the writer. I grew up, literally and emotionally, on a Trading Floor of a large financial institution (profession) on the first day of the job I messed up, nervous and filled with dread I had to tell Steve Vielhaber, the Head Trader, what I had done. I started with 'I's and 'feel really bad', I spoke emotionally. Right there on the trading floor he took me down. He ripped me up one side and down the other, until I was just about broken. Of course, I fell apart, sobs and liquid outbursts, pathetic. Later, over Jack Daniel's he told me there was no room for "I's 'and 'feelings', in finance. Take the emotion out, dish up the facts, cold. It made sense. Strange as it sound I do go back to his words when I am struggling with something I am writing. It's not a one-for-one comparison, but it reminds me to cut back the weeks, but it's tough thing to do. Thank you for the reminder and the suggestion, something to incorporate when I am struggling with a piece.  I must say the idea of taking a class is like yours is appealing.. hmmm!

  • Kathy Mackay

    Sarah, thank you so much for your insight.  One question--I've spent a few years working on a memoir but it's still fairly rough.  I'm thinking your Iowa classes may help me edit it further.  Would that be the correct venue to bring my first drafts or are the students in these classes just beginning memoir writing?  Thanks again for supporting memoirists!

  • Wickham Boyle

    Brava SS

    Can't wait for classes to begin.

    Cheers,

    w

  • Adrian Ruiz

    Sarah, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on memoir.  You are so correct and the craft of memoir is so challenging as described by your statement, "what is rightly, profound to you is not necessarily profound to others."  Soooo true.  We have to remember that as memoirists and find the story within. 

    Thank you!

    Adrian

  • Yelda Basar Moers

    This is an excellent summary on memoir writing!

  • Madeline McEwen

    Not my genre but one of my friends in my critique group is toying with the idea of memoir rather than her current romantic fiction.  Hopefully this will give her a little inspiration.  Thank you.

  • Sarah, you've put into perspective the things I need to shore up our memoir and strength it while tying up loose ends. Thank you.