There is fiction, and there is nonfiction; then somewhere in between lies memoir, their mutant spawn.
The last decade or so has been a heyday of sorts for memoir. Much of what makes the genre appealing to readers is that it combines the artfulness of fiction with the real-life validity of non-fiction. It’s the refined, literary version of reality TV.
But what appeals to memoir readers is often the same thing that confounds memoir writers. To piece together a good memoir, the tenets of fiction must be employed within the constraints of non-fiction. Likewise, the aims of non-fiction must be achieved through elements of fiction.
Still, this blurring of lines is precisely what makes memoir a worthy and worthwhile effort for any writer. Here are a few of the lessons you might find yourself picking up in the practice:
1. You Aren’t So Wonderful
In a world of bad characters and good ones, most of us would seat ourselves in the “good” group. But memoir might suggest we are being too generous in this. Try turning yourself into a protagonist: take a recent conflict in your life and record what your thoughts, actions, and interactions were in it. Leave out your motives and intentions, and instead write what actually happened. How did you respond when given a backhanded compliment, when annoyed in the check-out lane, when cut off in traffic, when insulted or demoted or hurt? Write it honestly.
I thought of myself as a capable and accomplished person, more or less—a kind one too, until I had to become a character in my memoir. The character-me was not nearly so magnanimous as the “me” that I had perceived myself to be. Seeing my unedited self on paper was startling. There was far more sin and selfishness than I would’ve been willing to admit. But that awareness made me better: more repentant, less proud, more forgiving, less afraid of making mistakes. I became newly grateful for what I have been given because I could see like never before that I don’t deserve it. And grateful is a great place from which any writer can start.
2. Characters are Complicated
Walk a mile in somebody’s shoes, as the saying goes. Real people have real complexities; this is impossible to ignore when writing memoir because the subjects you’re writing about are displaying their complexities all the time, from head to toe. Let this be a lesson. The people in your stories will be stronger subjects if you’re willing to appreciate nuance and even paradox in them. That means creating/presenting subjects who have dimension: likeable and unlikeable qualities, consistencies and inconsistencies, weaknesses and strengths alike.
3. Story Is Good
Setting, plot, characters, conflict, rising action, falling action, dialogue. Fiction writers tend to be experienced in weaving together these elements in their writing, while many non-fiction writers spend little time developing their story muscle. The result is often a non-fiction writer with a profound writing weakness: four parts tell for every one part show. Take a crack at memoir, and you’ll see that story can make a point on its own. Events and truths don’t necessarily require further explanation from an omniscient author voice. When the story you’re telling is complete, resolution is already there.
4. Reality is Simple
To keep things fair, here’s one for the fiction folks. You have zero limitations on the creativity you can bring to your story lines, which is likely why the rest of us so thoroughly enjoy your work. But memoir can remind you that most happenings in life are not extraordinary, at least not at first glance. While it can be tempting to rely on spectacular details to move your story along, often that’s an easy way out. It might take more effort and more practice in writing to instead craft a more plausible storyline that has every bit as much resonance.
But it should also be said that spectacular things resonate spectacularly. Few people will want to read your work if nothing in it drums up any interest. Far too often we let ourselves settle for an existence that is boring and wimpy. Ask yourself: In the last year, have I changed? Have I pursued something? Have I discovered something? Have I been part of something that matters?
We are creatures made in the image of a bold, reckless, zealous God, the One whose story grips people and sets their lives on an entirely new course. If there is nothing in your life that seems worth writing about, let memoir be an alarm that wakes you up to live bravely. Chase after something. Commit to something. Let go of something. Be moved to action. Give generously. Receive graciously. Love with tenacity. Or write some memoir, if you dare.