Writing Class & Memoir

I had my first writing class this week and it was really very interesting and fun. And AMAZING to be in a room with writers and readers again. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I was there, critiquing other’s pieces and having my own critiqued.

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I’d worked on a memoir for this week. I was encouraged to write it by a co-worker who also attends the class with me.

I thought I’d share some of their favorite excerpts first:

It’s amazing, really, what stays with you and what disappears over time. If I close my eyes and try to conjure your face or your voice – all I get are snippets, like overexposed slides. Brief. Fleeting. I can’t quite grasp it. Can’t make you stay no matter how hard I will myself to remember and to hold on. But sometimes – and it doesn’t matter when. It isn’t a ‘when the moon is full,’ sort of sometimes, or a ‘when the rain falls on a summer’s day’ sometimes. Just sometimes, I can hear your laugh. High and clear. And happy. That laugh.
Six years now. Six years since you tried to die. Six years since that week we waited, hoping that seven minutes without oxygen wasn’t actually seven minutes too long.
It was.

But suddenly, your mother was standing in front of us, looking nothing like the woman I’d known my entire life. She started to speak and her words hardly made any sense. How it couldn’t have been over something so silly, she always told you that you could talk to her. She didn’t know why you did it. How could you have done it? She wandered back into the family waiting room as abruptly as she had come, leaving those words echoing through my head.
Done it? Done it?
Done it. Done it with the rope from the tire swing we played on as kids. Done it over a girl you’d screwed over at least five times before. But when she was finally through with you, you decided you were through with life. Done it because you’d pushed us all away over the past year but was poisoned by your own depression into thinking that it was us who pushed you away.

Their constructive feedback:

– Describing why I was at the hospital that day: I go on for a little too long giving the background of why I was even at the hospital that day. (I had gone to be with my dad while he had a routine surgery.) I talk about my mom and about being home from school and it being the summer before my senior year. I talk about the kind of surgery he’s getting. The feedback was that all this backstory really isn’t necessary. I can mention my dad going in for routine surgery and my deciding to take him and move on. One sentence. Otherwise, this paragraph follows the “It was” from the excerpt above and so interrupts and takes away from the flow of the story.

– Clarity is sometimes a problem within the memoir. I’ve always had trouble writing memoir because I feel too attached and too close to the subject. I can’t determine what’s part of the greater story and what isn’t, because I feel like ALL of it needs to be jammed in there. And then there’s the problem of the things that I know that I think other people MUST know too. For instance, I use “she” when referring to the person that is the first to call me and alert me to the fact that my friend is in the hospital. My only description is that when she calls, I recognize her voice and I don’t use a name. However, in the paragraph prior, I’m describing being confused by having seen my friend’s mother crying. It’s easy to think that maybe I’m referring to her and not a different person.

I heard a woman wail and my eyes moved to the door. She was blonde, her hair a curly mass, tied to the top of her head. The people she was with placed their hands gently on her arms and carefully led her out the door. I couldn’t be sure from just the back of her head – Mrs. Leh…?
My phone rang. This time, I recognized the voice.
“Did something happen to Dave?” she sounded worried. She was our director, our teacher – our good friend.

How do you guys feel about writing memoir? Is there anything about it you find difficult?

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6 Responses to Writing Class & Memoir

  1. d.g. says:

    I'm a big fan of writing memoir/nonfiction essay. It seems to come more naturally.The only problem is where memoir inevitably talks about other people. And those other people may not necessarily be okay with it. I started a project a while back that I was excited about, and my classmates were into it, too. But I stopped because the piece was primarily about my job and there would be folks who would NOT be happy (even if I changed the names, it would still be obvious). Still not sure what to do about that!

  2. Kevin Bahler says:

    I am not much of a memoir writer. I hate talking about myself. Even in my own blog, I only discuss my life and experiences because they are an example that leads to a more general point.I have found, though, from reading friends' memoirs/autobiographies, that they have a lot of stories to share, but they don't make a point.In my mind, any narrative needs to either make a point or provide ideas to ponder around a central concept. The idea of the memoir as "a collection of stories that happened" sounds like a good piece of writing-as-catharsis or writing-as-reflection, but they rarely strike me as particularly compelling to an impersonal audience member.

  3. Beautiful, I love it! What was his name again? And was it really only 7 minutes before he was found?! My favorite part is the description of his "high and clear" laugh, remembered on random "sometimes" occasions.I find that writing memoir requires less effort, and I enjoy writing about myself–not sure what this says about me…Selfish? Lazy? Lacking in imagination? 😉

  4. Nicole says:

    Definitely not! I admire people that can write good memoir that is relatable and translatable. I find it incredibly hard to do. I feel like, to write a good memoir, you have to be able to sacrifice the truth a bit to get your message across. And I'm unable to do that. I want to start listing boring facts – and then, and then, and then. That's boring and pointless. But some writers… they can do it so well and so eloquently. I tried really hard with this one, to keep myself slightly distant from it while also trying to pour as much of myself into it as I could. Not my favorite genre to write, I think. I'd rather hide behind my characters.

  5. David Franke says:

    Sounds like you got great criticism and praise. I'm sure you gave out the same. I just finished Mary Karr's third memoir, *Lit,* and liked it, but I'm reading a memoir by Frank Conroy right now called *Stop-Time,* and loving it. He leaves a lot out. It's about trying to understand his perceptions as a kid, the way he literally looked at things, and not about telling us what a good person or long-suffering person he was. I would rather be reading that then doing anything else but breathing right now. So congrats for finding a great group to write with! Keep it up!

  6. I've written my memoir and used a lot of dialogue to make it real to the reader. The first draft just seemed like reporting bland, everyday things. However, when I edited it and added the dialogue, people became more real and situations stood out more.

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