When I began writing my first memoir I was under the impression that other people would find my story spellbinding—woman begins dating again after two divorces, discovers that dating at 60 is not like dating at 18.
I was wrong. My first critics, though kind, were bored. Elmore Leonard’s writing advice, “Just cut out the boring stuff,” became a steep challenge. While my life seemed pretty interesting to me at the time, it bored the heck out of everybody else.
It took years of revision, review, and rethinking to realize that I was not sharing a story, I was writing a story.
There are some differences between fictional stories and memoirs but not to readers; a story holds their interest, or it doesn’t.
If Ernest Hemingway had written a “memoir” about his time serving in Italy in the Great War, or in the Spanish Civil War, or fishing off of Cuba, he would have telescoped his true experiences and fashioned them into an engrossing story that wasn’t so different from A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, or The Old Man and the Sea. Nobody but Hemingway himself could know which of his facts and people were real and which were transformed and renamed by his imagination. He was following the first rule of some writing experts: Write what you know. The places and characters in Hemingway’s books are real. Who can doubt that Gadsby was real?
All writers have to write about what they know. What would they have to say about things and people they know nothing about? If War and Peace had been written by a serf on Tolstoi’s lands, it would have been a different book because the people serfs consort with and their daily activities are different than Tolstoi’s.
Fictional characters must be recognizable; both Anna Karenina and Hester Prynne reflect the sum of human beings Tolstoi and Hawthorne knew. My late husband Terry was a science fiction fan and urged me to read Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which takes place on another planet. My reaction (please forgive me) was “It’s just exaggerated human beings with different weather.”
For the reader, there is one standard. Is it a good story?
For the writer, writing fiction and non-fiction are different experiences.
In memoir, the voice must be consistent with the author’s. She can’t pretend to be Russian when she’s French. She can fiddle around, mix up the chronology or have herself viewing the world drunk and then sober, but the voice must be consistent and true. To sustain that voice, the writer must have a pretty good idea of what kind of person she is, and if the rest of you are like me, your idea of yourself is transient, dependent on who’s in the room and what the assignment was. I have discovered, for example, that in spite of my serious nature, I have a sense of humor. Gotta let that fly or it wouldn’t be me.
The fiction writer can tell the story of a woman birthing a child whose father, Sasquatch, is beating at the hospital doors, so enamored of his newborn child that he will finally reveal himself publicly. The author of Sasquatch Unveiled can be an omniscient narrator, revealing both what the woman is thinking and doing and what Sasquatch is thinking and doing. A memoirist can’t do that.
I’ve been interested for a long time in Bible stories. They were probably told as true; there was a King David, a Jesus, there were real Corinthians. These spare tales are expropriated by people living thousands of years after the original figures lived, and applied to today’s events. Gaza is David against Goliath. In the religious service the day after George W. Bush was inaugurated, the minister invoked the appearance of a bellicose King David. This is fact spun into fiction spun into personal belief.
Critics jump to wild conclusions about the personal lives of fiction writers because they are sure that buried in their fictional characters and events are revelations about the writer him or herself. But if Lolita had been a memoir, Vladimir Nabokov would have gone to jail. Heaven knows what experiences he had or observed that gave Lolita is authenticity.
A memoirist must be prepared to take responsibility for the actions and opinions expressed in her book in a way a fiction writer does not. How interesting that Henry Miller, whose fictional writings might suggest that he was obsessed with sex, is described in the context of his personal life in the memoir of Anaïs Nin. He comes across as a little flaky, but just another guy at the dinner table. It is what he has observed in others that is important in his work, not necessarily what he does.
The greatest memoir I have ever read is What The Stones Remember, by the Canadian poet, Patrick Lane. He uses his words to pierce the veil and enter into the kingdom of meaning. He’s giving the reader the true facts of his life, but they are weighted and inspiring. That is perfection.
Walt Whitman presents himself as a memoirist in Leaves of Grass:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass
He calls the grass, “the handkerchief of the Lord” and “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” He isn’t describing grass, he’s allowing you to bring your spirit and soul to something ordinary, grass. He invites the reader to see the magic of real life.
While I am not the equal of either Patrick Lane or Walt Whitman, I can look to them as the fulfillment of my ultimate aspiration to use memoir to present a set of true events and characters in language rich enough to invite the reader to soak up a greater meaning than simple description of my life. A memoir can be a mystery, perhaps an invitation to wonder, a challenge to pedestrian thinking, or a revelation of the spirit of an age, a society, or a person…or something else.
The memoirist faces the challenge of spinning the dross of material facts into the gold of a good story that can vie with a made-up one for vivacity and elegance.