An eye for an I – seeing beyond the self in memoir

This week, publishing expert and Writers Digest blogger Jane Friedman published this list of useful resources for people writing memoir. When I finally got around to clicking through it – this morning – one particular article led to a minor epiphany in the shower. But more on that later (the epiphany, not the shower).

First I must confess that every time I see a new list like this – they appear in my Google Reader feeds or in my Twitter timeline in the form of best-ofs, top-tens, must-haves, recommendeds, don’t-misses and round-ups – I begin to feel exhausted, deflated and even anxious. As an author, I wonder should I continue working on my own new manuscript when there’s yet another memoir-writing resource I’ve not yet glimpsed, reviewed, commented on and Tweeted? From a professional editor’s point of view I also feel pressure – I assess memoir manuscripts and coach other writers who are writing memoir, so I feel a sense of professional obligation to be “across” these sorts of resources. At the same time I should feel confident enough in my own critical judgement, developed over many years of working as an editor and being a published memoirist myself, to pay them only occasional heed.

So it took me all week, but I finally looked at Friedman’s list. I’m glad I did, for two reasons.

First, please read her post about the 5 Common Flaws in Memoir Projects (it’s part of the resource list above). To summarise, they are:

#1 – You have written a story focused on pain and victimhood – and nothing more
#2 – Your source material is a diary or journal
#3 – You want to tell of your own experience as a means of self-help for others
#4 – You have no definitive story arc or story problem
#5 – The story is not told with a fresh or distinct perspective

Read her explanatory comments on each of these flaws. Unless you are extremely well established as a writer, if you do not recognise your own work as being vulnerable to a charge of at least one of the flaws she names, you are kidding yourself. You must be brutal with your own work in order to have a hope of attracting the attention of an agent, let alone a publishing house.

In my own case, this list helped me recognize the weakness with my current project is #4. It’s a little tricky to talk about without specifying my subject, which I’m not prepared to do just yet, but I realised I still had to resolve the central problem of the book. What is the “I” of my book trying to discover or understand? Why is it relevant to a reader beyond my circle of friends and family? Despite having a strong and consistent theme, I have struggled to grasp what, at its core, the book is really about. Then in the shower, about an hour after reading the blog post, the title of a favorite poem came to me that sums it up exactly. So that made my endless capacity for internet digressions worthwhile.

The second reason I’m glad I read Friedman’s post is discovering this lovely formulation of one of the central problems in writing memoir. She refers to a July 2002 article in Writer’s Digest magazine, in which W.W. Norton editor Alane Salierno Mason differentiated the “I” memoir (all about the narrator) from the “eye” memoir (about point of view and relationship to the world beyond the self).

I love its simplicity – to some extent the “I” is unavoidable of course, but it’s the “eye” that distinguishes the publishable memoirs from the rest in the crowded memoir marketplace.

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