In her “three-part rant” on the PEN Center USA blog, Shanna Mahin makes a series of sharp and timely points about the art and craft of writing memoir. Like many readers, myself included, Shanna is tired of memoir being considered the “red-headed stepchild of the literary world”. She writes:
Good memoir adheres to the same guidelines as good fiction. It needs plot, story, well-developed characters, a solid through-line, all of it. And a memoirist has to do it with one hand tied behind her back. She can’t conflate a time period (although, allegedly, Vivian Gornick might argue that point) or create a dramatic scenario to illustrate the angst of the human condition (ditto, James Frey, et. al.) She has to do it with the raw materials at hand. It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living. I didn’t say that, V.S. Pritchett said it. And he was oh-so-right. Obviously, I’m not talking about Tori Spelling’s newest contribution, I’m talking about all the amazing books that have earned their place on the shelves of literature, work by writers like Nick Flynn, Tobias Wolff, Mark Doty, Lauren Slater, Abigail Thomas, Dani Shapiro, Mary Gordon, Patricia Hampl, Kathryn Harrison, Stephen Elliott … . I defy you to read any of their books and then tell me that fiction is somehow more relevant as art, or that any of these writers should learn the lost art of shutting up.
Get out of your protagonist’s way
Mahin makes a point about memoir that is often overlooked: that there is a difference between you and your narrator in a work of memoir, even though you are most likely writing in the first-person about an aspect of your life experience. Mahin puts it this way:
You owe it to yourself to get out of your own way about your protagonist. I realize it’s touchy. Technically, your protagonist is, well, you. But it isn’t. It’s a construct of you, rendered specifically for the page. If your peers are telling you that your protagonist is pretentious and bitchy, well, ouch. But the truth is that it’s your craft (ew, I said craft) that’s painting the picture. You get to figure out the story you want to tell and—and this is where the real work comes in—how to tell it on the page. That’s the journey.
I think this advice holds for all the characters who populate a memoir. Whether you’re in a classroom receiving feedback on your work, or relying on the opinion of a trusted reader, you must be able to look with steely eyes at the characters you are creating on the page. You are choosing what to include and what to leave out. You are deciding which words describe them.
Recently I had a client who, draft after draft, refused to give the character of his mother any redeeming qualities. She was no angel, but neither is a monster ever 100% monstrous. As a result, I felt at a distance, because the writer is drawing a caricature rather than a character. The writer will not get far with the manuscript because he insists on writing the story solely from his point of view, emphasising his victimhood. Good writing reflects empathy and understanding for all your characters, no matter what genre you write.
Oh, and the eyewear pictured above? These are “f*ck you goggles”, which Mahin suggests are essential for anyone writing memoir, in order to stare down the nay-sayers of the genre.