Writing Memoir, or, Taking the Winding Road to All Those Forgotten Places

A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.
― Mark Twain

Memory is a fleeting thing. Fallible as memory can be, writers depend on it when writing memoirs. Everyone wants to write a memoir these days, so much so that examples have been multiplying exponentially since Mary Karr published her genre-upending memoir, The Liar’s Club. So popular is the genre that Mary Karr wrote a how-to book on the topic, The Art of Memoir. She notes, though, that dysfunction alone will not make great memoir. If so, most of us could write truly terrific ones!

Nowadays, memoirs ranging from singer Alicia Key’s More Myself: A Journey to renowned writer Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of My Nonexistence shoot to the top of the bestseller lists. And with the slew of tell-alls by former Trump associates – Michael Cohen’s Disloyal a prime example of that subset of memoir – the avid memoir buff faces a large pool of possible reading material.

Why memoir? What drives readers to clamor for more, more, more?

Probably because many people – whether they wish to admit such a thing or not – really want a peek at the dirty laundry and sins of others, lapping up the details like a barn cat at the milk trough after a night of rat hunting.

Writing memoir requires a level of recall of past days and hours beyond the scope of most people. I don’t know about you, but a friend once told me – correctly, I think – that many of us live life on autopilot, going about our days in a state of suspended animation as it were. Life tends to fly by.

Today’s Wednesday, tomorrow’s Thursday. Trash day. Again. Seems like 5 minutes ago … .

Time is a funny thing, a harsh taskmaster and a healer all rolled up into one word.

Cathedral bells were tolling and our hearts sang on;

Was it the spell of Paris or the April dawn?

Who knows if we shall meet again?

But when the morning chimes ring sweet again…

I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places

That this heart of mine

Embraces all day through.

― Vera Lynn, “I’ll Be Seeing You

One memoir I’ve read over and over again – the words scraping like sandpaper on thin skin – comes from the brain of Harry Crews. A Childhood: The Biography of a Place ticks all the boxes for a good biography, the most important being the devil in the details.

The raw emotions.

The torturous feelings.

The soul-rattling storytelling.

Not just the usual narrative characteristic of many memoirs, devoid of a life force, the “I did this, they did that, we went there, they came here” genre. How did it feel when the author stepped in the mud, when he or she bit into a stew and discovered a tiny head?

But there’s more.

I actually cared about the narrator, Crews, and couldn’t pull myself away from the page. I thrust that book on a lot of people, saying “Read this, then you’ll know.”

What will you know by the time you reach page 192 and close this gut-wrenching book?

What poverty does to the soul. What despair tastes like. What hate robes itself in, what disguises it wears. And what love can and cannot do.

Years later, I am back living in the very same town where Crews died on March 2012, aged 76.

As I walk under the Spanish moss swaying from the magnolia trees, eerie and heart-stopping beautiful when the sun shines hot through their gossamer laciness, I think of what Crews said about writing in general, not just memoir.

Writers spend all their time preoccupied with just the things that their fellow men and women spend their time trying to avoid thinking about. … It takes great courage to look where you have to look, which is in yourself, in your experience, in your relationship with fellow beings, your relationship to the earth, to the spirit or to the first cause—to look at them and make something of them.

― Harry Crews

In other words, memoir that sings includes more than just intricate accounts of the quotidian. The gripping memoir strives to be more than a chronological accounting, not a ledger-like listing. Or a recap of great meals eaten in idyllic locales.

The devil is in the details, burning hot with boiling, salty tears.

Bananas, botanical garden, Sarasota, Florida (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

2 thoughts on “Writing Memoir, or, Taking the Winding Road to All Those Forgotten Places

  1. I agree. It takes more than a good memory to write an interesting memoir. You must be willing to to connect with and disclose your emotions. That likely means revealing to readers unflattering information about yourself. Mary Karr is the Mother of Memoir! I return, again and again, to The Liar’s Club for inspiration. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, is another page turner.

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