I recently had the privilege of presenting at the Capital City Writers Association’sWrite on the Red Cedar conference in Lansing. It was a delight. I had such a great time speaking on the topic of memoirs and personal essays that I thought I’d share some of the takeaways from my session here in a little series. Because you’ve always wondered what things I might know. Here are some of them.
For whom are you writing your memoir? Is it really and truly just for you? Great. That’s super. You don’t really need to read any tips about memoir writing then, because it doesn’t matter how you go about it. Do whatever you want.
But more often, people are writing memoir to share their story. Whether you’re planning to hand it to your only child while on your deathbed, or aim for publication and distribution on an global scale, the minute you decide who makes up that target audience, they become necessary to consider with every word you write.
And yet, if your memoir isn’t true to the story you want to tell, you’re doing your story a disservice. So you have to write for yourself. I know. Just like my thoughts on truth vs. facts in memoir last week, it sounds like I’m contradicting myself. Apparently, I love to do that. But really, it’s all about balance. You are obviously a fairly important part of your story. So is your audience.
For example, (I prefaced this story in my seminar as incredibly embarrassing, which it is. Please don’t judge), when I was writing Swedish Lessons, it was particularly important to me that I get the voice of my narrator exactly right. Yes, that voice was my voice, but it was a 23-year-old me, who was different enough from the Natalie who was writing the thing that the distinction mattered deeply to me. Chiefly, I was at the peak of my early-20s, sailor-mouthed, wayward, dried-out party girl, adult youth. I had no filter. Unless you’re counting the ones on my clove cigarettes.
To portray this, there is quite a bit of swearing in my book. There was also the repeated use of a word I used often and casually at the time, but no longer used in a derogatory manner by the time I was writing: retarded. (Yes. I know. I plead guilty. But I would like to point out that it was, unfortunately, commonly used in 2005. We became more enlightened as a culture around 2008-2010. Google and Wikipedia back me up on this.) But that was me, right? And those were the times. So I had to stay true to me.
I was on all sorts of pins and needles when my first editor, a friend and former newspaper editor of mine, met with me to discuss her first reading of the full manuscript. There was much to talk about; it was an entire book, after all. And she led with: “I really recommended you take out the word ‘retarded.’ I really like you as a person, and everything else about your narrator makes me want to like her, but I’m worried that when people read her use of that word, they won’t like her. You.”
OF COURSE THEY WOULDN’T. Because that is a terribly insensitive and not okay word to use as punchline to jokes. Duh. But I was too focused on me — recreating the me of 2005 — that I didn’t stop to think about my audience in 2011. It really wasn’t about ego or wanting to look good (trust me, there’s plenty in the story that does the opposite), but key to making the book work is that people do have to be invested in my character. So I had to remove that barrier.
Balancing writing for yourself and writing for your audience can manifest itself in a variety of ways. I also had to add lots more descriptive writing about scenery and setting, which I don’t enjoy writing (or reading, quite frankly). But my audience needed to know what Sweden looked like, for goodness sake. Based on the story you’re telling, you might need to go into detail about your cultural background, your relationship with your mother or your particular feelings on mailbox flags — even if you hate rehashing those topics and don’t feel at all like sticking them in. If your audience needs them, they’ve got to be there. Sorry. Drink some wine and crank them out. Your memoir will be better for it.
Check out the other topics in this memoir writing series: