Five Ingredients Memoir Writers Must Have

 

Ingredients, you say?

Writing a good, perhaps great, memoir requires a map or recipe. Any good recipe has a combination of ingredients which in the end equal what the cook hopes to present to her dinner guests, or in terms of memoirists, what we want to present to the reading public.

While I’ve been resting and healing these past few months, I’ve had time to ponder the reworking of my memoir. What is it lacking? What have I left out? Could I have mixed those ingredients a little differently to get a better result?

Differences between memoir and other genre

The best way to review what ingredients are needed foremost is to look at how writing a memoir differs from other genre:

  1. Memoir is, to the best of the writer’s ability, true. Drawn from a particular part of one’s life or an issue from which something is learned and can be shared with others, the facts are important in detailing scenes, characters, and places. Some facts may not be clearly remembered and in this instance, a disclaimer can be made to that effect.
  2. Memoir is somewhat more difficult in creating the story arc than other genre, such as fiction, science fiction, historical fiction, etc., because memoirists are dealing with reality and not the imagination. In imagining a story and putting it down in words, one has a bit more leverage than the facts of a memoir often allow. However, a clever writer has the ability to make memoir as interesting and readable as first-rate fiction.
  3. The memoir writer has a story to tell, and he or she is the only one who can tell that story. It is the writer’s story to tell despite what might be believed or felt by others. In other genre, this is not the case.
  4. Writing memoir requires having a sifter on hand or the delete button handy. Once you have chosen your theme, you must be careful not to allow stories to randomly enter the narrative of your work. Although a story or snippet has importance in your life, you must be willing to leave some stories out, especially those irrelevant to your theme.
  5. Lee Gutkind in his book, You Can’t Make This Stuff Upprovides the following explanation of creative nonfiction which sets all nonfiction apart from other genre. A good memoirist will keep this definition in my mind.

The banner of the magazine I’m proud to have founded and I continue to edit, Creative Nonfiction, defines the genre simply, succinctly, and accurately as ‘true stories well told.’ And that, in essence, is what creative nonfiction is all about. (p. 6)

The five ingredients or components listed above will produce a good end result. This isn’t to imply there are not other components necessary in writing memoir. But I believe these are basic to the nature and quality of good memoir.

Of necessity is writing as much as often as you can. I recently met with a writing coach to discuss returning to my manuscript after almost a year of not touching it. We agreed that two hours each day, at my best time of day, five days per week would be adequate to accomplish the next phase of my memoir. Also helpful is an accountability partner or group. I am using the Facebook group, ROW 80: A Round of Words in 80 Days.

In addition to writing, you should read, read, and read some more–the memoirs of others, creative nonfiction essays, books on creative nonfiction writing. And don’t forget classes available to you on the topic.

What are you doing to keep your recipe for writing memoir balanced? Any suggestions to offer? Feel free to share in the discussion in the comment section below.

Image attribution: Ella’s Kitchen Company Limited via Flickr

What Is Creative Nonfiction Anyway?

Creative Nonfiction vs. Memoir
Creative Nonfiction vs. Memoir

As my writing and blogging gained momentum, I would see the phrase “creative nonfiction” used to classify an essay which, to me, was clearly memoir, or a book similarly characterized. For the life of me, I could not understand the need for separation of the two.Until . . .

I began to dig for an explanation of differences between creative nonfiction and memoir. What I learned is vastly important to how I’m refashioning my latest revision.

As I combed the Internet, local libraries, and writing publications, I found an online and in print magazine, Creative Nonfiction. When landing on a new or unfamiliar site, the first place I visit is the “about” section.

To my surprised pleasure, I came upon an article entitled “What is Creative Nonfiction?” written by Lee Gutkind, lovingly referred to by “Vanity Fair”  as the “Godfather behind creative nonfiction.”

Gutkind begins his articlewith the following:

The banner of the magazine I’m proud to have founded and I continue to edit, Creative Nonfiction, defines the genre simply, succinctly, and accurately as “true stories well told.” And that, in essence, is what creative nonfiction is all about.

And Gutkind’s words clarify what creative nonfiction is–“true stories well told.” Aren’t we told to share the truth in our memoirs? Isn’t it the truth we are seeking as we write about our lives?

I suppose I should have been satisfied with Gutkind’s definition, but I kept digging. Discovering a site hosted by Barri Jean Borich, I read with interest her post entitled “What Is Creative Nonfiction?” In her opening paragraph, Borich provided an extension of the answer found in Gutkind’s article:

There are many ways to define the literary genre we call Creative Nonfiction. It is a genre that answers to many different names, depending on how it is packaged and who is doing the defining. Some of these names are: Literary Nonfiction; Narrative Nonfiction; Literary Journalism; Imaginative Nonfiction; Lyric Essay; Personal Essay; Personal Narrative; and Literary Memoir. Creative Nonfiction is even, sometimes, thought of as another way of writing fiction, because of the way writing changes the way we know a subject. (Emphasis added.)

If we take the two definitions and combine them and agree with the simple use of the word “nonfiction” to mean we only write what is true, not fictional, we have the beginnings of creative nonfiction. But what about the word “creative?”

Just because we write nonfiction and tell true stories from our lives’ experiences does not mean we cannot and should not be creative in the process. The best memoirs I have read were filled with creations as delicious as a cold glass of iced tea on a hot summer afternoon. Others took me down dark, painful paths into lives of abuse and suffering, but they created the darkness for me, the reader, to experience and reach and understanding of the writer’s story.

Never let it be said a writer writing creative nonfiction cannot paint a beautiful scene or imagine the garments and buildings of ages past in his/her family’s life.

Even though we write nonfiction, our true stories must be “well told” as Gutkind suggests. And as Borich states a lot of what is written as creative nonfiction “depends on how it is packaged” and “who is doing the defining.”

The only caveat to using your creativity in nonfiction writing is not to stretch the truth of your story.

We cannot overstep our bounds in using creativity to make up incidents which never occurred, or statements never made, or whatever else you could invent.

Are you finding opportunities to “paint” while you write your memoir or some other piece of creative nonfiction? Do you see other ways the two words, “creative” and “nonfiction,” come together to define the genre or form we are writing? Let’s find out in the comments section below.

6 Books Added to General Writing Resources List

Winter has been too kind to the populous of the Pacific NW, and the season overlooked us in favor of other parts of the country. But in place of unkind and unending blistering cold, freezing precipitation, snow depths unbelievable to most of us, the lack of same at our end of the country allowed germs to blossom, multiply, and infect.
My husband and I must have passed someone stricken with respiratory issues with the instinct that “paying it forward” meant anything and everything. If we could find the kind soul, we’d gladly pay back the germs shared. However, we’ve had some good reading time as we rested, drank lots of liquids, and healed.

According to Stephen King, we must read to write so I gladly read these past couple of weeks. Today I want to share some stellar books specifically written for writers. Excellent tools to have at hand or at least in your library. Here are thumbnail sketches of them:

Everybody Writes by Ann Handley is an easy to read guidebook on writing and publishing good content. Not only is it suited to writers and bloggers, anyone who writes and/or markets in today’s fast-paced Internet markets will find Ann Handley’s advice well-tested and palatable.

Helen Sedwick’s Self-Publisher’s Legal Handbook provides a step-by-step guide to the ins and outs of self-publishing. The legal issues inherent in any business undertaking are presented in lay terms for ease of understanding and use. Helen Sedwick is not only an author but also an attorney with 30 years experience.

Writing Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon shares the story of the journey involved in writing Blue Highways. Heat-Moon wrote of a 14,000 mile, 38-state trip he made, and now he shares the four-years spent writing Blue Highways. He shares not only his success along the way, but also the rejections and other stumbling blocks writers face. Numerous drafts, unending revisions, balancing personal life and the writing life, and much more bring to light what every writer must understand–“the tricky balance of intuitive creation and self-discipline required for any artistic endeavor.”

Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age by William Powers is part memoir and part intellectual journey. Powers is a brilliant writer drawing on not only the constant question faced by today’s digitized person, “Where’s the rest of my life?,” but also dropping back quietly to past technologies and the likes of Shakespeare and Thoreau. At times, I found myself laughing out loud and/or giggling at how ridiculous we’ve allowed the digital world to become. Remember when we were told computers would save us time? I still need to learn how that works. Enter Powers’ book.

Recently, I had the pleasure and opportunity to hear Gigi Rosenberg speak to a writers’ group here in Portland. My husband just happened to win a copy of Rosenberg’s latest book, The Artist’s Guide to Grant Writing. Rosenberg has written a transformational guidebook to take starving artists of any art form to a driven researcher of grants, fellowships, residencies, and yes, grant writing. The money is out there, waiting to be spent on the creative arts, if we only ask. Finding it is key, and Rosenberg’s book holds the key to unlock the treasure.

As an adolescent, teen, and young adult, I was always late to the party, and so I am in reading Lee Gutkind’s book, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. Lee Gutkind, also editor of Creative Nonfiction, has been called the “godfather of creative nonfiction.” His book breaks the genre of creative nonfiction down into an understandable, easy to grasp slice of writing education. I don’t know why I waited so long to read this handy tool, but I’ve not been able to let it out of my sight since finishing. It’s worth every penny I paid for it!

I have added these six books to my list of resources found under the menu tab, “Resources | General Writing Resources.”

 

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