Stick to Your Story
Stick to your own story, I want to begin with, because there is a tendency, and it wouldn't be true for the people who have had the big, obvious situation that just placed itself right smack dab in the middle of your life like a grenade. But some of you want to write a memoir but you're not sure that you've got your own great story. So you think, "Well, I'm gonna tell about my fascinating grandmother, who back in 1947, climbed Mount Everest blindfolded, in a bikini," I don't know. "She's an interesting character." And no doubt, your grandmother is. But here's what I've got to tell you about all those interesting characters in your life that you may think are much more interesting than you. I just worked in Guatemala a couple weeks ago with a woman whose father was a hugely decorated general in Vietnam and he was, he saved people's lives, he jumped out of a plane, he was a prisoner of war, and she thought that her job in coming to Guatemala was to tell the story of her hero father. And ...
you know what? As impressed as I am with her hero father, the story I want to hear is the story of her. Maybe a big piece of her story is being the daughter of the hero father, which is probably a bit complicated. All these years after his death, she's still telling his story. I want your story. I don't believe, some people will say, "I'm really boring, nothing dramatic like that has ever happened in my life," and I'm gonna tell you that you do not need to have climbed Mount Everest or singlehandedly rescued 11 POWs in the middle of the Cambodian jungle. There is nothing more gripping than total honesty. It is that rare to encounter it, as we all well know, somebody who is willing to actually tell the truth. And it's the beautiful thing about memoir, that you don't need to have accomplished these extraordinary feats. You need to accomplish the feat of looking square in the eye of what has scared you the most, what has brought you to your knees, and then be brave enough to talk about it. And I want to say that as long as you're telling your own story, you are telling, you are the world's expert on your subject, and it doesn't matter if you've got me or any other experienced professional writer out there, I can't tell your story. Only you can. And you are the only person who has ever lived it. So what's keeping you? Are you giving your resume? (laughter) Don't. And often when you write, you think, and this is actually what stops a lot of people. "Oh my God, where do I begin? So many things have happened. Well, I was born ..." You don't need to tell every single thing that happened. You know, I use an example often of one of my favorite memoirs, Mary Karr's, The Liar's Club. Beautiful memoir. The entire memoir takes place over only one year of Mary Karr's life. But do we need to know about the year before or the year after? There is everything that we need to know to understand that family in that one year. As long as you are going through the events of your life, you're writing in a manner that anybody could write who simply checked out your file. I want you to tell the story, not as this is what happened, but this is how I experienced what happened. And I want you to locate, and I actually think this is going to take you off the hook from that overwhelmed feeling of, "Oh my God, where do I begin? There's so much to say." To locate a particular theme. It doesn't mean this is the only one you'll ever explore. It's the one you're going to explore this time around. My memoir At Home in the World, which I consider my first real memoir, it's the one that I published about 25 years after the book that I mentioned, Looking Back, when I actually went back and I wanted to tell a more honest story, and I wanted to explore some rather significant pieces of my life that I had omitted from the first memoir. I was at this point 44 years old. You know, it didn't happen overnight, this honesty thing for me. It was hard come by. At Home in the World is not the story of my life. It's not even, some people think it's the story of my, of a famous writer. Guess what, it's not that either. It is the story of, to some degree, part of it, is the story of how my experience with a famous writer changed me. I have no business writing his biography. But I can certainly talk about how that experience affected me. And it's not just that, either. It's actually, I'm looking at what that meant. It's the story, if I were to describe At Home in the World, and I will, I think it's important to be able to say what your story's about, the journey of At Home in the World is the journey of a girl going from believing that she needed to be very good, please everybody else, win approval, be very successful, and found her value through how other people viewed her, to a girl who found her own voice, reclaimed her lost identity, and wasn't a particularly good girl at all. In fact, spoke up, reclaimed her voice, and spoke up in a way that made her quite condemned in many quarters. But I got myself back. That's At Home in the World. Now, over the course of the years that that book covers, many other things happened. I raised three children, I had a marriage and a divorce, my parents died, I carried on a career for those 25 years. You won't learn a lot about any of those things in At Home in the World, and not because my three children aren't pretty darned important to me. It wasn't the story for that book. That was not the journey I wanted to take you on. So what is your story about? Not just what happened, but what is your story about? And this is a question that might seem the most obvious question for any writer, but I'm going to tell you from experience of 25 years, working with students and reading student manuscripts, and always beginning almost every workshop session with a particular writer begins with the question, some of you in this room have had this experience, with my question what is your story about? And do you know how often the person cannot say, or they give an answer that is very long. Barbara, where's Barbara here? Yes, Barbara. Tell us what the story is that you want to write.
And stand up.
The one I sent in or the one that I know?
No, I want you to tell what you sent in. It was fascinating. I'm not here to shame anybody. We're all in this together.
I wrote a list basically, born in the Central Valley to farm laborers, grew up with a father who was relatively strict to the point of, in today's world, being abusive. Going into the convent, teaching sexuality at the medical school, having dyslexia and not being able to read or write, entering into an abusive marriage. I think there was even more.
And staying in the abusive, and staying in the marriage, not the abusive part.
Staying in the marriage and how I chose to resolve that. I think my last line was good, which was my story is the story of overcoming our raising. How we were raised doesn't have to be who we are in today's world.
Barbara, every one of your sentences was good. That was the problem. There were so many good things. Is there anybody who doesn't want to hear about somebody joining a convent, and then deciding, oh, I think not. I think I'm gonna be a sexuality counselor instead. (laughter) Incidentally, sexuality for the physically disabled, I believe.
Yeah, no arms, no legs, I can help you. (laughter) I'm sorry. (laughter)
You have a wealth of story. You have a wealth of story, and you also, Barbara did identify at the end, a common theme, a through line, a thread. But it may be that you're not gonna get to all those stories in one memoir. And the thing to do about it, of course, is to take them one at a time. Nathan, I read your submission too. Tell us, for those who haven't read it, tell us a little something about what you want to write.
I think I wrote that I didn't know what I wanted to write about. But that I had too many ideas.
Yes, and what are some of them?
Escaping Vietnam with my family.
Yes, and how old were you, Nathan?
I know that I came here when I was five or six, but I think we left when I was three or four.
And do you remember?
Parts of it.
Very important, very important. I mention that because I don't want your memoir to be hearsay. So nobody, unless there's somebody with spectacular powers, you're probably, oh stand up. I'm not done with you. (laughter) You're probably not gonna be writing about your birth. But if you can remember leaving Vietnam, then absolutely, yes. And tell us more.
I think another one I wanted to write was how I learned to fall in love.
How you learned to fall in love.
Because it was not what I learned about love when I was growing up.
Whoa, whoa, now this begs the question, if we're gonna learn how you learned, what do we need to know first? And you actually said it. What you were told it was.
It's the world before the world changed. And this is something that applies across the board in all of your writing. If you're gonna talk about a big change, a big loss, you know, if John is going to write about the loss of his daughter, that story does not begin that morning on the Golden Gate Bridge. We need to know that daughter. We need to know who was lost. If we are going to hear about you leaving Vietnam, I hope we are able to get some glimpse of what life in Vietnam was. And if we're going to hear about your discovery of what falling in love was, first we need to know what it wasn't that you had been told it was. And that's what, I call that the world before the world changed. So once again, and I think you have a few more things that you put in your submission.
Probably, but I can't remember them.
Okay, you do know your life, but okay. I'll take you off the hook on that one. So yes, once again I will say, if you have a hard time saying, and neither of these people did, but if you have a hard time saying-- Your hard time is just how you're ever going to tell all those stories. But if you cannot say in two sentences what your story is about, then probably you have not yet identified what story you're telling. And that's a red flag. Now, I want to talk about a-- If some of you, who's taken a writing workshop before? Has anybody ever heard a writing teacher say, "Don't worry about your first draft. Just get the words out there. Vomit it out on the page." Sound familiar?
Yes, okay. You will not hear that from me. I don't believe in vomiting out on the page, and I don't believe that vomit on the page ever gets cleaned up to anything other than a little less vomit. (laughter) I do not think, and my experience tells me that once people have committed words to a page, especially because the process of doing that is pretty arduous, especially for some people, they get pretty attached to that vomit. It's really hard to throw it out once it's on your laptop. Am I right about that?
People at home? I'm gonna suggest an aspect of the writing experience that doesn't get talked about very much, which is to think before you begin. And to ask yourself, and then write down the answer, what you are going to be writing about. And the thinking may go on, and has in my case sometimes, for months. At Home in the World, it actually went on for 25 years. I probably couldn't have earned a living very well if that was the only book I was working on, and it wasn't during that period, but it is the not writing period, and it will serve you so well. What builder would ever think of just getting to a piece of land, and saying, "I think I'm gonna start hammering some wood and see what I get here?" (laughter) Make a plan, and the plan begins with identifying what your story is about. And then tell one story at a time, and I'm looking at you, Barbara, because there's not one of those stories that you mentioned that I don't want to hear. Growing up in a farm worker family, the abusive husband story, as familiar as it is, is a very interesting story. But what is really unexpected is that 40-some years later, you wrote, you're still married to this man. And I want to know, and sometimes people are still married to the abusive husband because they're just trapped in an abusive marriage. But I don't think that's your story. Take one story at a time, and if you hear yourself saying, because this is what you could write down in that what is my story about, my story is about my relationship with my mother. Who doesn't have that story? My story is about my marriage, my story is about the poverty of my childhood. If you're writing that, then you have not yet focused in small enough to tell a story really well. I want you to give me a sentence that is not simply a state of being, like my abusive childhood, my marriage, but motion and change. In the case of Barbara here it would be, "My story is about having grown from a young marriage in which my husband beat me up to a marriage that, to the same man, 40-some years later, that has endured lovingly and with tenderness." That is not a state of being, that is a story. And I want you to take me on a trip, not write about an abstract, static state of being. I want to talk about skating, I want to talk about Dolly Parton, but a story with motion in that. I could talk about, and I won't, the evolution of my feeling about Dolly Parton over time.