The Test of a Good Memoir
So I wanted to share with you just a few paragraphs from my most recent book, "The Best of Us". It's the story of finding and loosing my husband. I never call it a cancer memoir. I call it a love story. And I'm going to give you examples of paragraphs with power words. See if you can find them and feel them. "One last reminder of my terrible selection "of a travel companion". This was not Jim I was speaking of here, "also awaited me". Because of course if you're telling the story of meeting this wonderful man in the late 50's, you have to give a bit of a context of all the other not so wonderful men who preceded him. (audience laughs) So this was one of those. "One last reminder of my terrible selection "of a travel companion also awaited me "when I got off the plane. "A three page email from Doug, "not particularly well written, "expounding on all the reasons why I was "a terrible person, a lousy sexual partner "and all around looser in life. "'They should post warnings on Match.com "...
'about people like you' he wrote. "I did not write back". This is with Jim. We've just moved to a house in the country that feels like a paradise except there's a rat and we cannot get rid of it. "In the meantime", oh. "We were up at 5:30 as always. "Jim headed out to dispatch the rat. "When he came back to the house he was shaking his head. "The rat was gone having burrowed out from under the bucket. "Nothing left on the glue trap but "an astonishingly long whisker". (audience laughs) "At the hospital in Walnut Creek, "they gave him blood tests and told us "to come back the next day for a scan. "And I noted an odd look on the face of the nurse. "As we sat in the doctor's office that second day "awaiting the scan result a feeling of dread came over me. "When is a big moment slow time way down. "When the doctor entered the room I knew it was bad. "'We can't confirm this until we perform the endoscopy', "he told Jim. "'But it's pretty clear what's going on here. "'There's a tumor in your pancreas'". Do I need to make any commentary? Just hear those words. This is near the end of the story. Just coming home from last day at the hospital. "Like an astronaut emerging from the landing module "after a long space flight, "Jim climbed with exquisite deliberation "out of the driver's seat. "He stood a moment outside the house before going in. "After years of drought, the winter had brought rain. "And now the field behind the house was green "all the way to the oak trees. "For the first time since we moved here "the brook was running again. "You could smell the Jasmine and the Wisteria was in bloom. "Same as it had been the first time we pulled up here "just two years earlier. "We made our way along the path to the front door. "Jim's gait slow, but steady. "Mine matching his. "As he placed his hand on the doorknob "Jim turned around again, his gaze taking it all in. "'This would be a good place to die' he said. "We stepped inside". The test of a good memoir. So, I've been talking about nuts and bolts and tools for your writing. And I'm a stickler for all of those. But at the end of the day you can master all of these skills and still your writing will fail to move me if it doesn't speak about something that matters. And something that matters to you. And if you do not possess the courage and convey the conviction to tell the whole story. And all these other tools are ones that I want you to carry with you. Because you're going to be doing this really hard thing. And don't go out unprotected when you're telling your really hard story. Be strong and be powerful. And you'll be stronger and more powerful with all the nuts and bolt skills. But at the end of the day the most important thing is to be a narrator, you, that I like and trust. And the way, incidentally, to get me to like you is not to tell me all the wonderful, likable things about you. I happen to like Edna for telling me about the purse and the panties. Because as you've now heard, I had my day with shoplifting a hairbrush. I trust Edna because she is sharing that detail. And if you want the reader to trust you, exercise scrupulous honesty. Particularly if you're gonna tell hard stories about other people, don't spare yourself. And don't tip toe around certain places. I've had students who've said to me "I'm gonna tell almost everything but "there's this one part of my life, I can't go into that". And you want me to invest 10, 12 hours in reading your story? And then just when maybe the most important part comes up, you walk around it? I don't think so. That's probably the place you need to dive in. And fearlessly dive in. And I want to urge you as you do it, to locate compassion. First of all, for yourself. Forgive yourself. Nobody in this room ruined anybody's life. There are multiple characters in every single drama. And we are never just victims. And we are never just villains. We're probably always a combination of those things. And I believe that of the people who have hurt us the most too. I hope that although I have told some hard stories in my writing life, I hope that I've never cast anybody as an evil person. A bad guy with a black hat on. It's one of the great things about having taught memoir for as long as I have and heard as many people's stories as I have, that I now know everybody has one. Sometimes if I'm having a little bit of difficulty with a particular person in my life, I imagine them sitting in the circle at my workshop in Guatemala or in California, and I know they have a story. They'd have a humdinger of a mother or a grandmother or brother who beat them up. They'd have their story. We'll get to my memoir "At Home in the World", which caused an enormous amount of controversy, in the next segment. Or a couple segments down. But even in that book, there are characters about whom I tell some pretty tough stories. But I don't want to stack the deck against any of them. I don't want to manipulate you to hate them. Or even to dislike them. I'm just going to show you what they did and show it through my eyes. And I'm not gonna use adverbs that, "He sneakily did this", "He sneered". Or all those little ways we can point a reader to think about a particular character the way we feel about them. Uh uh. Give us the straight story. Trust the reader to figure it out. And write always with some love and forgiveness in there. And forgiveness for yourself most of all.
We talked the diagram of sentences. And to me it seems like it goes back to journalism school. "Don't bury the lead". And yet talk about the gap in the teeth, "Don't give up too much information too soon. "Hold back for that surprise ending". So there's a balance that's there that we have to kind of (mumbles) that little gap between them.
I don't think the gap in the teeth is a surprise ending exactly. I just want to build. I want to just build. It's not a big reveal. I would just say basically when I have a list of details I want my most powerful and evocative one to come last, usually.
Got one in the back over there.
I really like all the lessons. My question is when do you make all these decisions? Is it before you write the sentence or is it during editing?
Well, at this point, I've been doing this a long time. So there's a whole lot of editing that goes on internally. I don't make glaring mistakes, probably of the kind that you saw in those diagram sentences anymore. But certainly editing is a crucial part of the writing process. "The Best of Us", I wrote in about three months. And spent the next eight months editing it. Going back over every single sentence. So, yes.
I have one from online and then we'll go back. So this is from Leigh who says-
Where does Leigh live?
Leigh does not say where she lives.
But she says "Thank you for this class". And "Any tips on how to avoid overuse "of the word 'I' when writing memoirs?" So can you talk to that?
Well, why do we have to avoid it? I've been criticized for so many things and one of the things of course that gets said about me regularly is "She's always writing about herself". And I want to say "Would you rather that I write about you? "Really?" (audience laughs) "I" is gonna come up. It is your story. And don't be so fearful and apologetic about writing about yourself. That's what we're doing here in memoir. If you have an issue with that maybe just take up golf instead. I don't know. Obviously I don't believe in repeating any word excessively. But I wouldn't be afraid, I wouldn't be afraid. I'm telling my story, "I" will come up. Yeah. Get over it. It's you, you're interesting. You're not a narcissist. You're telling the only story that you have full access to. So tell it freely and let those "I's" come as they do.
Great. Judith comments "Put the "I" back in memoir". (audience laughs)
I also have a comment. When I think of Joyce Maynard I think of show don't tell, show don't tell, show don't, that's what I remember about you. And there's a scene in my book-
Sadly I'm not the only one who thought that one up. But yeah.
It doesn't matter because there's scene in my book that I attribute directly to you. Short little scene. It's the day that the world ended. And my wife and I are sitting in the living room. Our two neighbors are sitting there with us. Two Tiberon Police officers standing there. It's the moment they dropped the dirty bomb on me. And in my first draft I probably wrote a page of me just freaking out. That whole page is gone. It was replaced with one simple thing. I had my car keys in my hand, they slipped out of my hand and they clattered on the floor. That was it.
That's all because of you.
We know, does anybody have to be told that a father learning about the death by suicide of his daughter is going to be inexplicable levels of grief? So yeah. I actually very seldom go into descriptions of crying tears. Because we all know that part. It's the thing that we don't expect. Like the girl who's worried about her mother finding out that her gold necklace got lost on the day that she was almost raped. That's the surprising thing. But absolutely, yeah. Do we have more from home?
We do. We have one from Amanae and that is, you talked about reading out loud what you've written. And so the question is "Do you record yourself and then listen to it back "or is just he act of reading it out loud"-
Just the act of reading. I'm a low tech girl. So I avoid machines whenever I can. I'm really proud that I'm operating this pointer successfully actually. (audience laughs) But just hearing the sound of your voice. If it helps you to record it, sure record it. I do always record my audio books. And sometimes even after all the work that I've done, when I'm recording an audio book I hear something that I hadn't heard before. And I change it.
So we have another question online. It's about the use of word repetition. And so "If you're trying to give emphasis to something "is word repetition okay?"
There are times, there's no real rule besides, does it work? Sometimes it's actually very effective to say the same thing multiple times. Yeah. If you want to convey that kind of relentless, I wish I could think off the top of my head of an example from some great piece of writing. Or something that I've written or something a student has written. But absolutely. Sometimes it's very deliberate, it's intentional. But let it be intentional. Don't find yourself repeating words just cause you hadn't noticed. Know what you're doing.
"How do you write the bad stuff without "breaking down every few seconds"? Are we gonna talk about that later?
Well, I don't mind talking about it now if we have time.
Just a bit.
Yeah, yeah. Okay. I do sometimes feel a catch in my throat, or I feel very moved. I want to be in a state of real emotion. Not uncontrollable emotion, but real emotion when I write. And I'll even, if I feel a need to intensify that, I'll play some music first, I'll look at some photographs or all kinds of things. And we're gonna talk about some of those in another segment. But actually the writing process does just the opposite. It allows me to contain and control what might otherwise be uncontainable, uncontrollable emotion. I remember hearing a story of a woman, she was a student of mine, who had gotten the news that her partner, her lover, the man she was gonna marry, had dropped dead of a heart attack. And she got it just before she was going to sit at her piano and perform in a quartet. So the other musicians were counting on her. There was an audience. And she performed. And she performed. She did the thing that she had been doing since she was five years old. And it is the go to act. And I bet everybody in this room has something like that. That you know so well that you just, you do it. You can always drive, you can always, in my case make pie crust. You put on the laundry, you walk your dog. There are things that you do and they're actually comforting. And for me the thing that I do is to tell a story. The night my husband died, and he died in our bed at home. And I woke up in the middle of the night. And of course I knew he was close to death for many days. I saw that he had died and I laid there for about an hour. Just taking it in. I knew I would never have this experience again. And then I got up. I don't think this will shock you at this point or make you have any question that I loved him insufficiently. I went downstairs, it was the middle of the night. It was too early to call anybody. I went downstairs and I made a pot of coffee and I opened my laptop. And I will never say that was something that I managed to do in spite of everything. It was actually the only thing I could do. And it's one of the reasons why I take such joy in teaching a class like this. Because I want you to know that enormously comforting experience of taking charge of a set of experiences and feelings that have taken hold of you. And controlling then instead of letting them control you.
Actually what I wrote that night was the first page of "The Best of Us". It stayed.