Saturday, July 9, 2016

More About Memoirs


     In their excellent You Should Really Write a Book, Regina Brooks and Brenda Lane Richardson put memoirs into six categories:
1.   Coming-of-Age Memoirs
2.   Addiction and Compulsion Memoirs
3.   Transformation Memoirs
4.   Travel and Food Memoirs
5.   Religion and Spirituality Memoirs
6.   Outlier Subgenres

        They write, “It has been said that the only good thing that ever came from having bad parents is that they make good memoirs.” This is a subset of the rule that “bad times make good stories,” or at least make interesting stories. Sadly, lots of sad stories exist, such as the memoir by Mary E. Seaman and myself, Kidnapped Twice: Then Betrayed and Abused. Though published right before Christmas, the book could not be promoted then as likely to contribute to holiday cheer.
Fortunately, happy memoirs exist, too, such as our High Shoes and Bloomers by Alice Conner Selfridge (2014) and our Home Is Where the Story Begins by Kathleen Blake Shields (2015), both books being fine fare for holiday giving.

Addiction and Compulsion
Brooks and Richardson note that more than an eighth of the population is addicted to drugs or alcohol, and many celebrities are in this group. I reviewed for Amazon a memoir, Needle, by a recovering addict, and I found little to like. If the addict takes responsibility and cleans up his act, well and good. If we just get a series of excuses, what does that contribute? Still, such books sell, and the descent and recovery make a natural story arc, like a U. These are what were once called “cautionary tales,” though some authors seem to revel in the celebrity that attends them. B & R have a how-to section on writing these.

Transformation or Survivor
        The more harrowing the better; the more dramatic the crisis, the more impressive the survival, and one had better learn something from the experience. You get the idea. B & R give lots of good advice. See them for it. The best of the books in the sub-genres in this category all share: inevitability of something terrible survived, bonding between the reader and the author, suspense, character development, victimization, empathy, and insight. The down side of such works is that the situations the protagonists are in often disgust the reader, unless leavened with humor and fascinating unique details and unless the author is capable of getting the readers immediately and deeply involved.
The variety of perilous personal predicaments as memoir material astounds. I’m partial to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: A Memoir of Life in Death, written by Jean-Dominque Bauby (1997), paralyzed to such a degree by the neurological “locked-in syndrome,” that he communicated his memoir to a patient nurse-secretary by blinking his left eye. Shortly after the book was done, he gave up the ghost. Suffice it to say, your difficulties in writing your book will pale in comparison with Monsieur Bauby’s. Take heart from that.

Travel and Food
Yes, I know travel books and cooking books are popular, but I have little taste for them. Brooks and Richardson report what publishers are looking for, and here I summarize: a protagonist with a strong desire, who is opinionated and fairly outspoken, likeable, capable of describing the sensory experiences (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling), who uncovers unfamiliar aspects of the locale, giving historical and cultural context, with both a strong story line and an insightful interior monologue, ending the journey with a transformation, growth, and some lessons for the rest of us. Easy, right? Just don’t forget to have a plot! And add some humor.
Again, see B & R for lots of detailed advice. Later.
I cannot advise you on food memoirs. I am on a rather restricted diet, and the subject of food, especially exotic food, either nauseates me or bores me or both. My usual dinner fare is meat and salad, lots of dressing, hold the carbs. Some live to eat. I eat to live.  
Still, “each to his own taste,” or as the Romans said: de gustibus non est disputandum.

Religion and Spirituality
This topic needs to be handled with great care. Politics and religion are explosive. Because of its great importance, religion is often a source of heated contention; unfortunately, one person’s allegory or parable is another’s literal truth. There is a large market for books about God and about religious experiences. Over $1 billion a year is spent on such books in the U.S. alone.
A classic in the genre is Thomas Merton’s (1948, 1978) The Seven-Storey Mountain, his struggle in the World War II era to find God. B & R summarize a plethora of religious memoirs.

Outlier Categories
Brooks and Richardson list: biblio, canine, comedic, family saga, gardening, grief, incarceration, information-based, parenting, romance, venture. They describe each in detail. As is often written in reference lists, op. cit.; see the B & R book itself.
Regardless of the memoir genre, Judith Barrington advised memoirists:
Your reader has to be willing to be both entertained by the story itself and interested in how you now, looking back on it, understand it.
In order for the reader to care about what you make of your life, there has to be an engaging voice in the writing – a voice that captures the personality. In all kinds of informal essays including the memoir, the voice is conversational.
To keep the voice “conversational,” you will write in the first person, using “I” and “we” to refer to yourself as the subject of your sentences. When talking to others about your book, you would often indicate, “the narrator….” Thus, you might tell a friend, “I chose to have the narrator make that information public.” You will sound quite author-like, and you are becoming one.
Judith Barrington advises that we lose our reluctance to make judgments, as these spice the memoir and add value. Because the “other side” does not get to answer, however, try to be fair and even to indicate what the other point of view might be. 
Knowing what you want to write about includes knowing what to leave out. “To be effective, be selective.” To make a point, an example or two will suffice; more will bore.
Barrington warns us to avoid special pleading:
The tone of such pieces may be serious, ironic, angry, sad, or almost anything except whiny. There must be no hidden plea for help – no subtle seeking out of sympathy. The writer must have done her work, made her peace with the past, and have been telling the story for the story’s sake. Although the writing may incidentally turn out to be another step in her recovery, that must not be her visible motivation: literary writing is not therapy. Her first allegiance must be to the telling of the story and I, as the reader, must feel that I’m in the hands of a competent writer who needs nothing from me except my attention.
I must feel confident that the writer is not using me to enhance her status or that of her family…with this “improved” version of her past. Bad Blood by Lorna Sage is one of the many examples of a memoir that avoids this pitfall.
I must also feel confident that I’m not being used by the writer to get revenge on one of the characters in the story.… On the other hand, anger, when it is perceived by the reader to be justified, need not be disguised or watered down.
Don’t whine. Don’t brag. Choose your targets carefully, sparingly, justly.

We’re done here. More help can be obtained from the books by Barrington and by Brooks and Richardson (2012), among others.


Excerpted from my own  recently published opus, Write Your Book with Me, from Outskirts Press and available online through OP as well as and See also my site,

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