Let's Talk About Memoirs!
Updated: May 14, 2021
Hello dear readers! While much of my work involves editing fiction these days, I also work a fair amount on memoirs. I am writing my own at present, and memoir continues to be one of my favorite genres to read. I thought I'd share with you my advice on memoir writing, some of the best resources I've found for memoirists, and my favorite memoirs. I hope this sparks your creativity and gets you writing (and reading!).
Take a Workshop
Last fall I took a memoir writing workshop with the incomparable Susan Jane Gilman, bestselling author of both memoirs and fiction. I learned so much from her (and my amazing classmates!) and began writing and workshopping the pages of my current work-in-progress. If you have the opportunity to take a course or a workshop, you absolutely should. The discipline it instills, and the perspectives of your teachers and fellow writers are always helpful.
Use Your Fiction Writing Tricks
Everyone has a story. Everyone! Even you. I recently wrote a guest post for one of my favorite writers' blogs, Writers in the Storm, about how you can use the tricks you've learned in fiction writing in your memoir. I believe every writer should try to write a memoir. It's a fantastic exercise in memory and detail, and you never know what ideas for your other writing may come out of the process. I have gotten no fewer than three novel ideas while writing my memoir. Anything that forces you to think very hard (and memoir forces you to think very, very hard!) is good for a writer. Even if you never publish.
If the thought of writing an entire book-length manuscript is intimidating to you, I recommend starting with an essay on one particular topic. A resource I love for this is The Sun Magazine. In every issue, their "Readers Write" section features reader-submitted essays on an intentionally broad topic. Submitting a piece is free and easy. And you might end up published! I decided that this year I would try to write on each topic they give. I've already submitted one piece. Even if it doesn't get published, it got me thinking, and more important, it kept me writing at a time when I was starting to feel stalled out.
Writing a memoir is very challenging. It can be exhausting mentally and emotionally, especially when you're covering difficult personal topics. Jami Attenberg's Substack, Craft Talk, has been immeasurably helpful and encouraging to me on my memoir-writing journey these past several months. I recommend subscribing. It's quite possibly the biggest favor I've done myself the past year (in addition to working with an accountability partner—which I will talk about in another blog soon, so stay tuned!).
Read, Read, Read
If you want to try your hand at memoir, I recommend reading several first, if you haven't already. The Mercantile Library recently had me on as a guest for their Tuesday Book Chat, and I talked about many of my favorites, as well as what I think are some critical ingredients in a great memoir. Patti Smith, Poe Ballantine, Ann Patchett, Lucy Grealy, Anthony Bourdain, Gabrielle Hamilton, Karen Blixen, David Sedaris, Tara Westover, Sarah Smarsh, Lauren Hough, Murray Bodo, and Kim Gordon have written just a handful of my favorite memoirs. I am sure you will find your own favorites easily.
As always, happy reading and keep writing!