Working on my memoir, I’ve turned to many, many (many many, too many) books with tips on how to get started, organized, and inspired. I also read a lot of what other authors say about the process and will share quotes here, as well. I’ll begin with my favorite quote, well, one of them.
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love questions themselves like locked rooms or books written in very foreign tongues. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them…live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” –Rainer Maria Rilke
So here’s a list of the books on writing creative nonfiction/memoir that I’ve found to be the most helpful. Sadly none of them are writing my book for me.
- Bird by Bird –Anne Lammott
- The Portable MFA Guide to Creative Writing –(one of my favorites, it’s got EVERYTHING)–NY Writer’s Workshop
- The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House –(with essays from Dorothy Allison, Jim Shephard, Aimee Bender, Steve Almond, DA Powell, and others)
- Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir –-edited by William Zinsser
- Three Genres –Stephen Minot (incredibly helpful)
- Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction –Brenda Miller (another GREAT book)
- the 3 a.m. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises by Brian Kiteley (for fiction but helpful anyway)
- The Situation and the Story : The Art of Personal Narrative–Vivian Gornick (pretty good for so small a book)
- On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction –William Zinnser (I wasn’t that impressed)
- Writing Life Stories –2nd edition –Bill Roorbach (this is a good one)
- The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir –Jennifer Traig & Dave Eggers (A FAVORITE)
- Ernest Hemingway On Writing —edited by Larry W. Phillips –awesome, naturally; lots of letters to F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Gotham Writing Workshop Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide From New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School
- Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir –Natalie Goldberg –(just started reading this one)
- Shimmering Images –Lisa Dale Norton (an interesting take, unique)
- Views From the Loft: A Portable Writer’s Workshop –edited by Daniel Slager (good, really good)
- The Writing Life –Annie Dillard (not so helpful but I love reading her)
- Writing Your Way: Creating a Writing Process That Works For You —Don Fry -(you’ll survive without this one)
- Rewriting the Self: History, Memory, Narrative –Mark Freeman (pricey but fucking worth it–a Psychology book so perfect)
- that Strunk and White book (E.B. White)?
- The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life —Marion Roach Smith –(suckish)
- Stein on Writing: A Master Editor Shares His Craft, Techniques, and Strategies –Sol Stein (excellent–listening to it on Audible)
- Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from the Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs–Philip Gerard
- Keep it Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing CNF –Lee Gutkind (ok not everything, but good)
I realize I’m giving away the fact that I’m desperate and may have no life, but hopefully you’ll find the list helpful. Ernest Hemingway I believe said that you only need to find one true sentence. That’s the toughest part about writing I think.
Here’s a picture of my writing journal that I keep notes, quotes, exercises, and outlines in and I tabbed the sections
So what I’ve gotten out of these books are basic facts you need to remember and questions you need to ask yourself.
From The Autobiographer’s Handbook:
Like “there are many reasons to write a memoir, but what are the reasons to read it?” Outline your life in terms of pivotal events and moments. Usually you’ll find repeating motifs that you can link and expand on. And my hardest one to deal with–you don’t know what your book is about until you complete the first draft. Don’t worry about Genre–genre will be decided by the content after you’ve written it. Ask why it’s so important to you to write it? RESEARCH YOUR PAST. Try to make a routine, but just write and write and write and worry about wording and perfection later. Write the beginning LATER. If there’s no energy coming off the material, forget it. The work itself will start to take shape and structure as it becomes its own thing. THE WHOLE THING’S BIGGER THAN YOU, SO YOU CAN RELIEVE YOURSELF OF THE BURDEN OF THINKING THAT YOU’RE IN CONTROL OF IT, YOU’RE THE PASSENGER. **The structure will find itself. It’s supposed to be a mess. **Let memory guide you and memory works in nonlinear fashion so that images from the present propel you into images of the past. AND LET THEMES GUIDE YOU, and link periods of narrative thematically and imagistically–all of these images and meanings are about meaning. The STRUCTURE of the book IS the meaning of the book, not what but how. Find the right structure by writing and failing over and over which leads to writing and discovering. OUTLINING–keep reworking, you have to find a way of indicating chronology without letting it have the final say.
Every event is tied to a certain theme and if the event doesn’t fit the theme, cut it. After deciding on a theme, it’s easy to order the events in life which illustrated that theme, giving you guideposts for what to put in and leave out. The POWER of memoir is letting the reader walk alongside with you and discovering things as you did.
IF YOU BREAK OUT OF THE NARRATIVE THE READER LOSES THAT SENSE OF DISCOVERY AND YOU DIMINISH THE BOOK’S TENSION.
A memoirist needs to be patient, and not give themselves away too quickly.
Most insights lead to compassion–which is the goal of a memoir.
Forward momentum keeps because of PURPOSE. If the heart of your book is a THEME, then every chapter should flow from that, how to build a story is a matter of having a question and then setting out to answer that over the course of the book–DELAY THE ANSWER–get the reader involved in solving it with the narrator but keep them from the answers until the last possible moment.
Focus on stinging moments, don’t waste time filling.
***Make the story bigger than yourself****
Look for PATTERNS in material, you’re looking for the determinate patterns in your life and that’s the principle by which you finally organize your material. IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU IT’S ABOUT THE STORY. The more detail you can get down in the beginning the greater your choice in deciding what to leave/cut/save. ***KEEP YOUR BULLSHIT DETECTOR ON****
From Views From the Loft:
FIRST DRAFT: has to be emptying out of all truths–the big, close ones. If we don’t do this, uncontrollable revelatory outbursts or the tension of secrecy itself will empede the work. You must to careful and honest self-examination.
my favorite: making suffering coherent doesn’t by itself turn it into literature. To move it from the private to the cosmic realm, we also have to find the MEANING in it, to turn the cloud inside-out and expose the ragged or silver lining. IT’S NOT SO MUCH WHAT HAPPENED THAT MATTERS TO AN AUDIENCE, BUT WHAT WE KNOW BECAUSE OF WHAT HAPPENED.
Because the raw material is fact, the writer and reader exist as partners in the open discovery of meaning. Because it is literary, the way the facts become story is more important than some final destination of knowledge. In all this process, most enticing experience is the discovery of the thread, the second story, the background coherence, the thing I don’t know until I do. Until this happens, life is random; after this happens, life is mysterious.
From The Portable MFA in Creative Writing:
they attempt “How to live?” and they give one answer–how they tried, what they experienced
–Readers expect to experience more directly the mind of the author, who will frame the meaning of things for herself and tell the readers. In its telling, she becomes more of herself. Start with those fragmentary and vague impressions: EMOTIVE TRUTH.
***A life doesn’t have a theme until someone finds the underlying patterns to it and, using literary craft and artistic vision, shapes the elements of experience and directs them toward significance. **THE IMPORTANCE OF SELECTION
From On Writing Well
Memoir isn’t the summary of a life, it’s a window into a life. You must become the editor of your own life, imposing on an untidy sprawl of half-remembered events a narrative shape and an organizing idea. The art of INVENTING THE TRUTH
From The Memoir Project
What you leave out of the story is perhaps more important than what you put in. Write with intent, transpose your life’s details into real content.
Every page must drive one single story forward; research parents’ lives, What is this about…the story’s intent: mercy/ Shift: you are no longer the center of importance–look for that moment. YOu are not the story you are the illustration. Appreciating the difference between the personal tale and its value and the universal tale and its appeal …how can you make it valuable to the reader? By making it SMALL, RARE.
Success in writing is all about which details you choose to emphasize
***IT’S IN THE SMALL MOMENTS, THE BIGGER LESSONS /LARGE MOMENTS ARE TOO BIG AND RARELY LEARNED. SIMPLICITY
WRITE WHAT SCARES YOU.
from The Situation and the Story
*What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to MAKE of what happened. **that idea of the self -the one that controls the memoir–is almost always served through a single piece of awareness that clarifies only slowly in the writer, gaining strength and definition as the narrative progresses.
A line of clarification becomes the organizing principle–the thing that lends shape and texture to the writing, drives the narrative forward, provides direction and unity of purpose.
the question being asked “who am I?” on that question the writer of memoir must deliver, NOT with an answer but with DEPTH OF INQUIRY.
The shaped presentation of one’s own life is of value to the disinterested reader only if it dramatizes and reflects sufficiently on the experience of “becoming” : undertakes to trace the internal movement away from the murk of being told who you are by the accident of circumstance toward the clarity that identifies accurately the impulses of the self
from Inventing the Truth
Annie Dillard said “the best memoirs forge their own forms.” The writer must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out; her advice to memoir writers is to embark upon a memoir for the same reason that you’d embark on any other book: to preserve your memories “because I’m willing to turn events into pieces of paper.”
Danger in self-indulgence, when you write you’re indulging yourself in your own sentimentality so find ways to safe guard against that: use irony, wit, self-deprecation and also by being honest, or revelatory, about pain and fear. THE MEMOIR IS ALL ABOUT THE UNFOLDING OF YOUR EGO AND YOU NEED TO DEFLECT YOUR PRESENCE.
Like The Liar’s Club, This Boy’s Life, A Drinking Life–childhoods described were painful, the writers are as hard on their younger selves as they are on their elder selves. We are not victims, they want us to know. We come from a tribe of fallible people and we have survived without resentment to get on with our lives. for them, writing a memoir became an act of healing.
If you make an honest transaction with your own humanity and with the humanity of the people who crossed your life, no matter how much pain they caused you or you caused them, readers will connect with your journey.
To organize: you must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control. THINK SMALL. Look for small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in memory
Write with love (Pete Hamill, Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff): they elevate the pain of the past with forgiveness arriving at the larger truth about families in various stages of brokenness. NO SELF-PITY. No whining, no hunger for revenge
A good memoir requires two elements: one of art, the other of craft: the 1st element: INTEGRITY OF INTENTION (memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are/who we once were/what values shaped us)….2nd element: CARPENTRY (a careful act of construction memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events. with the feat of manipulation they arrive at a TRUTH THAT IS THEIRS ALONE)
Understanding how we are structuring our experience forces us to be concrete and vivid *sensory details*; By experiencing it, the reader begins to CARE about it; tell the truth, but shape it in a way that WAKES US UP and startles us into a new grasp of our strange lives
scene: the building block of CNF
Image and metaphor: you can often find clues to your own imagistic or metaphoric organizations when you recall the sensory association a thought or experience calls to mind. Stay with a particular image and explore it in writing for awhile–does it lead to concepts of things? If you let yourself write about the image alone for awhile (not rushing) a more complex, more true series of THEMES in your story will probably emerge.
**Once you find the aspect of your story in which greatest conflict and resolution lies, throw out everything that doesn’t bear on that idea. Once you see a pattern emerging, then it’s easier to decide a structure=move specific focus to your theme.
There’s so much more I could write but this is getting long. Check out the books, and good luck writing. I’ll end with this quote by Loren Eiseley:
“Men should discover their past. I admit to this. It has been my profession. Only so can we learn our limitations and come in time to suffer life with compassion. Nevertheless, I now believe there are occasions when…to tamper with the past, even one’s own, is to bring on that slipping, sliding horror which revolves around all that is done, unalterable, and yet which abides unseen in the living mind…and makes us lonely beyond belief.”