Memoirists reflect on why and how to write “a true-life tale.”
The enormous current popularity of memoirs inspired Maran (A Theory of Small Earthquakes, 2012, etc.) to ask 20 writers to share thoughts on motivation, morality, and craft. Although the editor writes that this book is aimed at readers as well as writers, the structure suggests that would-be memoirists are the intended audience. Maran prefaces each chapter with a sprightly introduction, along with “Vitals” such as birthdate, schooling, Twitter and website addresses, and bibliography. Each entry is divided into brief sections, beginning with “Why I write about myself” and ending with a boxed nugget of advice called “Wisdom for Memoir Writers.” Most of the contributors are likely to be familiar to readers: Edwidge Danticat, A.M. Homes, Sue Monk Kidd, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, and Ayelet Waldman are among the women; Pat Conroy, Nick Flynn, and James McBride are among the men. Some offer opinions about the value of memoir as catharsis, therapy, or revenge. All agree that crafting a memoir is different from keeping a diary. “You still have to write scenes and be engaging,” Danticat advises, “You have to edit mercilessly….Don’t just put things in because ‘they happened.’ ” Waldman echoes Danticat’s advice: “Writing memoir requires the construction of story and character in the same way that writing anything does. The trick with memoir is that the story and the character have to be true.” However, there’s considerable disagreement about memoirists’ responsibility to other people. “Memoirs hurt people,” Conroy writes. “Secrets hurt people. The question to ask yourself is, if you tell your story, will it do enough good to make it worth hurting people?” Strayed cautions, “You have to think about the personal consequences of writing about others on a case-by-case basis.” David Sheff declares simply, “Don’t hurt people.” Other contributors include Kate Christensen, Edmund White, and Jesmyn Ward.
Candid revelations for readers; useful advice and encouragement for aspiring writers.