The price of memoir

May 27, 2010

Writing memoir is a struggle.

I’m certain that fiction has its challenges and that writers of that genre feel attached to their characters. But a fiction writer can make characters say, do or feel anything, and not be quite as personally attached as they would be if they were writing about themselves.

I have struggled and struggled with a personal essay I’m writing that would be the basis for a memoir.

The problem, it turns out, is that I haven’t been willing to access and write the raw emotion that would make it a good piece. It’s been much easier to write about “what happened.”

The real action, though, is “how it felt.” And I haven’t wanted to go there.

Writing memoir means being willing to expose deeply personal feelings. Oh, I can write feelings with humor just fine. But there’s nothing funny in the story I need to tell.

I thought the last draft I wrote would do it, but as soon as I sent it to my writing groups I knew it still sucked.

Maybe “sucked” is too strong a word. It was serviceably written. But it was really just a sequence of facts. It lacked emotion. The kind of emotion that readers can relate to, that once revealed, makes a piece more universal.

I walked around the house talking to myself like a madwoman yesterday, I really did. Trying ideas out loud. Talking myself into taking a new approach.

And finally, I sat down and started again. Only this time, I let go and began writing some of the tough stuff. What came out was far better than what I’d written in all the previous drafts.

A hugely talented writer-friend has been instrumental in pushing me to open that part of me up on the page. He rocks so big-time. I wish he were my personal teacher and editor. I should engage him for that.

Here’s the truth: my story involves other people. And the question with any memoir is one of collateral damage. Whom or what a writer might hurt or even destroy in the process of telling their truth. Misunderstandings that might accrue.

“That’s why I write plays,” another friend said.
“Fictionalize it,” said another.

No. I am not a fiction writer. Yes, the skills needed for memoir and fiction are similar. But I’m uncomfortable with fiction.

My truth is my truth and I am going to have to tell it. I need to tell it. I’ll do my best to not gratuitously hurt others. It will be, of course, my point of view. Others have theirs.

It’s been a strange ride, no doubt about it. The things that have happened in my life are the stuff of soap operas, romance novels, fairy tales.

The women I talk to love the Prince Charming-white-knight-in-shining armor aspect of my story. But the truth is that you pay a price for everything you get in life.

And that’s where the real story is.

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