Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Memoir Writing Tips For Students of the Genre


One of the first questions people ask when I teach memoir is an explanation of the difference between autobiography and memoir. After providing them with the definition that memoir offers a look into a compressed time period and reads like a novel you can see the faces light up.

That’s because everyone has a particular story they long to write; a frame of reference, a "snapshot" in time that resonates with the larger life journey ... a story that might help others.

That was the case last night at a library here in suburban Philadelphia where I began teaching a four-week class in memoir. Of the 15 men and women assembled, only one or two knew anything about memoir, yet all left the class intrigued with the exciting possibility that they had something of value to share through the power of story.

As I promised weeks ago when I first announced I was teaching this class, I will share on this blog what we learned.

In my class,  I emphasize several things:

  1. You have to be passionate about your story.
  2. Memoir is not for the faint of heart. It can feel like diving naked off a cliff.
  3. Memoirs have many themes: transformation and healing; humor, travel and family legacy.
  4. Memoir is a journey of self-discovery both enlightening and empowering for the writer. 
  5. Everyone has a story to tell; if we search deep within the ordinary life, we find the extraordinary. 
  6. The genre has increasingly become respected as a work of literature.
  7. People love true stories.

One person asked if memoirs were ever turned into movies. We began listing them and the surprise was evident, Wild; Eat, Pray, Love; Running with Scissors, just to name a few.

Other questions:

Should I write with the idea of publishing? My answer: only you can decide that. Either way you go, the effort is worth it.

I tried to stress the merits of writing with an uncensored pen and putting the inner critic aside. This met with a lot of smiles and nods of approval.

Is my voice something I manufacture?  No, A voice is your fingerprint on the book, your unique and original imprint. It can’t be manufactured; it can be developed and honed. Authenticity is  key.

Thus, our writing prompt: write 12 words describing who you are. In reading back those words, the class began to realize how they – as narrator – could capture and present to readers their own idiosyncratic or distinct voice.

Next week we’ll talk about all the creative props that come with developing story: dialogue, scene, narration and more. And, they'll write and share.

This week's assignment: List 10 of the most meaningful, important or transformational events in your life. Come back next week and we'll see what "story" emerged.

Finally, what struck me most is that 15 people signed up for a class - some after a busy day of work - because all are curious about memoir. They appear to have a desire to tackle their own story. And most admit that a class helps motivate and keep them on track to write. It doesn’t get much better than that.

And one final note: the Lower Providence Library where I teach this class offered me my own "memoir moment". I didn't realize it, but this was the very same library where I used to come and read at night when my sons took aikido lessons at a nearby dojo. As a single, working mom, it offered me a place of quiet and reflection. I always loved it, set back in a bucolic enclave off the main highway. How strange . . . I hadn't entered the library for over 12 years . . . now here I was, back again - teaching what I love.

Your thoughts, questions and comments are most appreciated.
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