Monday, May 16, 2011

On Writing Memoir, and a Mule

Of all the different writing genres to choose from, I don’t know why I’ve chosen memoir.  No great talent do I have, or claim to fame for being inventor, designer, architect ,actor, composer or radio star.  Nor am I an award winning chef, renowned athlete or prosperous philanthropist . I’m just your average 60 year old woman who has enjoyed the times of my life, and want to write about them. I think the description I wrote for my  blog ( sums up my reason for wanting to write memoir best, One woman’s reflections of past and present—people, places and things that contribute to the joy and sweetness; the sorrow and hurt of an everyday, ordinary life.

A few weeks ago my mother and I were travelling from my house  to hers,  and stopped  at The Sage Bakery in Union Town  for an afternoon Cappuccino and cinnamon roll treat.  In the corner of the store was a double sized shelf lined with books for sale.  To my delight I found one title  that  peeked my interest, and I quickly purchased it:  The Autobiographer’s Handbook , The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir,   edited by Jennifer Traig.

 In the introduction  David Eggers writes: The reasons for writing a memoir are many, but one reason in particular, because it trumps all others, I think, and it will, I hope,  give fuel to would-be memoirists  of any stripe: You should write your story because you will someday die, and without your story on paper, most of it will be forgotten.

Grim as it may sound, I must admit, that’s a good reason, too for writing memoir.  So our  own , personal story  won’t be forgotten after our demise.

I’ve written other blogs and essays about everybody having a story  to tell. It might be something sad or funny, unique, unusual, memorable or mundane; Extraordinary, and yes, even ordinary.  Whatever our story  is, it’s part of who we are, what we are and why we are.  Stories help us learn about life, and one another. Stories are meant to be shared.

 I don’t believe lack of desire  is the reason we don’t  write our story, I think it’s because we don’t  know how to get started . Perhaps we’re intimated by what we perceive to be such a lofty goal, or  maybe we procrastinate, and continually put off putting words to paper. Or maybe we’re afraid someone will mock our efforts.  I know, because I’ve been there—and sometimes still am.  Afraid the story I have to share , what I write won’t be good enough, won’t be interesting to someone else.

One way to overcome  such obstacles is to  join a writers group.  Another is to read what other storytellers write, and what published authors have to say.

Frank McCourt , quoted in The Autobiographer’s Handbook,  encourages  writers  to get started  with writing their memoir this way : Scribble. That’s what I tell all the writers I meet. Don’t sit down to write a book, just start to scribble. Get your material down on paper. Then something will emerge. It will demand to be told. Then you get going. It’s like a sculptor chipping away at a block of granite—something emerges.

You don’t just sit and write. You have to scribble. You have to sketch if you’re a painter. I think there’s great value in scribbling. I scribbled for years, and I would listen to my high school students tell me, you should  write a book, you should write a book.  I always had the itch to write; I didn’t have the itch to write a memoir until my students started telling me to.

I didn’t procrastinate. Once I started Angela’s Ashes, I finished in thirteen months. ‘Tis took a little longer.  Teacher Man took the longest. It was harder to write about teaching than about a miserable childhood.

Maxine Hong Kingston offers this: I always begin writing by jotting down notes about feelings and happenings which matter a lot to me. I am gathering clay. Then in about twenty drafts, shape and form become clear. An emotion , an image, a sound takes place in a scene. A scene is the basic unit of drama. Write a series of scenes, connect them with transitions—viola !  You have your book. For me , this process works writing both fiction and nonfiction.

For me ,  Elizabeth Gilbert’s reason  why we procrastinate strikes a cord; Because we judge our work too much – we write one sentence and think, “This is horrible”, and then we quit in frustration.  I think procrastination is not laziness, but disappointment.  We wish we wrote better, and our inability to translate our dreams to the page can be crushing.  But mules ( I like this analogy) - when they are plowing  fields—do not stop, turn their heads, and contemplate whether or not they’re doing a good job.  When you’re working on your first draft, you should no more look backwards at a sentence you’ve just written than a mule would wonder, “ Gee, am I doing a good enough job plowing this field?” Later when the first draft is finished , you can come back and mess around with your work, but not until you’ve got the field plowed completely—whether the job was done well or not. That model is the only way I’ve ever been able to  get my work done. And when the inevitable voices rise , as I’m writing, saying, “This isn’t good enough, “ I just answer back in my mule’s voice: “That’s  not my problem.  I was only hired to plow the field.”

So, dear reader, next time you get an  itching to tell your story, do some scribbling or  write a series of scenes,  just remember that mule !

*** Postscript: 826 National  is a network of youth tutoring, writng and publishing centers around the country. Once a month at 826 Valencia a panel of published authors gather before an audience of aspiring writers and for three hours answer questions about their work.  The  Autobiographer's Handbook referenced  in this blog is an outcome of those meetings.  For more information visit


Jennifer Rova said...

I love the two analogies of "gathering clay" for remembering bits of an experience and the one about the mule. The mule doesn't care and neither should the "first drafter." Those tips plus other insight in today's blog today's helped me a lot about writing in general. Thanks!

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

I also love the mule analogy. Between Elizabeth Gilbert's mule and Anne Lamott's birds, we should each be able to sit down and crank out a first draft of our memoir. Thanks for an inspiring post.