Beginning, or just bad, memoirists often try to present themselves as ‘likeable’. Yet the more conflicted and honest about our flaws we are on the page, the more likely our stories are to appeal to readers. The most important thing is not to shy away from putting on the paper all those things we often hide in social interactions – those quirks that are unmistakably ours, the hidden thoughts and eccentricities that set us apart and show our most fundamental dilemmas.
Let’s, though, not confuse emotional honesty with earnestness. As much as it is important to open up about one’s Self, creativity is still the key word in memoir writing. We need to craft our ‘I’ with great care, as if we were fictional characters, rather than aiming at creating a comprehensive self-portrait. It is commonly understood amongst creative nonfiction writers, and also dedicated readers, that the ‘I’ in the work doesn’t equal the author, that it is a version of her, shaped to fit the story. For example, my memoir The Dangerous Bride is set during a troubled time in my life when my marriage was unravelling. To fit the theme I underplayed the more organised aspects of myself and emphasised my confusions and inconsistencies. I also portrayed myself with constantly dishevelled hair even though in reality I sometimes do brush it… I wasn’t faking, but rather working along the lines of advice from the American author and writing teacher, Robin Hemley, who writes: ‘It’s possible to be completely honest about yourself and at the same time selective and manipulative in the details you choose, for the sake of keeping the prose focused…’ To keep to the emotional truth of our stories without boring our readers silly, we can reveal just the stuff about ourselves that is relevant to the particular story we are telling.
To get the most out of this exercise, I suggest to follow the steps in the order presented here.
1. Write a list of your most unique skills and interests. (For example, if you bake and also collect Pinocchio figurines, then only mention the latter – unless you bake cakes in the shape of Pinocchio.)
2. Write a list of your eccentricities, i.e. your more idiosyncratic mannerisms or habits. (Do you avoid words ending with ‘o’? Do you use green lipstick?)
3. Write a list of your superstitions: any supernatural thoughts or beliefs such as touching wood for luck. (Don’t dismiss anything as being too ridiculous to reveal. Trust me, you are not the only one who believes deep down that fairies live in your pantry.
4. Write a list of your prejudices. (Be as honest as you can. Political correctness is the enemy of good writing. And so are prejudices left unexamined.)
5. Write a list of your internal conflicts, those baffling crossroads of contradictory desires, such as simultaneous desires for independence and for close familial ties. (You may think you have none. Then there is no point in you writing a memoir. Or laying a claim to being human. Go as deep as you can.)
6. Write a list of your secret desires, those that can stop your breath just thinking about them, yet are too uncomfortable to admit (The unfortunate truth for memoirists is that usually what we are most scared to admit is our best material.)
Write a dramatic scene that belongs in your memoir, where you utilise several items from these lists. For example, a scene in which one of your eccentric habits is noticed by another, where a secret desire motivates an action, or –you get into trouble when you voice openly one of your prejudices. Make sure that the things you choose are relevant to the mood, action and/or reflection of this particular scene, or at the very least reveal something new about your character.
Hemley R. Immersion: A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press, 2012.
Photo: Bunker unter dem Marktplatz_13 by Ken Hawkins