Writing Memoir? Get Some Skin in It

by Christine Hale

Memoir is popular with readers and writers these days. Most of us have a “true” story we’d like to tell, about a pivotal time in our life or a family member we admire or barely survived. Writing memoir tends to be cathartic, and it can be fun. Reading memoir opens windows into life situations more strange or more touching than we could ever have imagined. The best memoirs transform readers’ lives through examples of physical and emotional courage that expand our compassion for people living way outside our comfort zones.

But what the heck is memoir? I teach creative nonfiction in an MFA program, mentoring all kinds of literary nonfiction, including memoir. As some of my readers know, I’m engaged in writing a memoir myself (to my considerable surprise). My students’ questions and my own confusion about my goal and my motivations have encouraged me to worry out a bottom-line definition. Here it is: memoir is a sub-genre of creative nonfiction that seeks, in essence, to answer the question, “Who am I and how did I get to be this way?” But it’s not, strictly speaking, nonfiction.

Memoir is not true in the way travel writing or literary journalism is because it’s not fact-based. It’s memory- and perception-based, and thus inescapably subjective. Memoir is the result of a writer’s quest for an authentic subjective truth: the memoirist’s psychological truth about that pivotal event or relationship.

Students fret about what they see as the fuzzy line between telling a subjective truth and lying, especially in the wake of a series of infamous (and sometimes profitable) fake memoirs or kinda-sorta true ones liberally sprinkled with “enhancements.” Faced with the media splash in response to graphic tell-all memoirs, students fear they’ll have to reveal things about themselves and their circumstances that no one should know. Reading celebrity memoirs celebrating, well, celebrity, would-be memoirists worry they have nothing to tell that anyone would want to read.

The litmus test, I’ve come to feel, lies in the definition above, especially with the words “quest” and “authentic.” If you want to be honest with your readers, you’ve got to be honest with yourself first. If your impulse toward memoir is authentic, you’ll feel a quest tugging you, or spurring you – even though it may take you many drafts (it usually does) to succinctly articulate the question you’re driven to explore. And, if you want readers to care about the revelations your quest brings you, you’ve got to give them emotional access to the excitement and the torments a process of genuine self-discovery always entails.

In a lively classroom discussion of these matters several years ago, the director of the MFA program where I teach famously asserted, “You’ve got to pull your pants down.”

The class responded first with robust belly laughs and later with a greater willingness to let down their guard on the pages they wrote about their lives. Still, in workshop discussion of memoir drafts that come off as self-justifying, or mean-spirited, or provoke readers to ask, “Why are you telling me this?” (a kinder variant of the agent or editor gut-punch: “So what?”), I find myself talking about why a writer of memoir had better get some skin in it.

Memoir takes many forms on the page – book-length or short-short; poetic and elliptical or linear; full of scene and dialogue or voice-driven narrative – but always in one way or another the writer is telling a story. All the people in your memoir – including you – are characters in your story. Readers care about the characters in stories because…they seem so human. They have powerful wishes and grave disappointments. They do some brave stuff, but they make dreadful mistakes and miscalculations that dog them for decades. Like real people, they are vulnerable, and the reader gets to feel that, right on the page.

The memoirist, then, needs to make herself vulnerable – pants-less at some point from some angle – in order to be a worthy and engaging character in her own story. This is not easy. It requires skill, tenacity, and guts, and I suspect the difficulty of the task is the reason many memoirs are abandoned and others are finished but lifeless.

It’s the effortful process of finding, and then artfully revealing, the necessary patch of skin that leads to insights, self-knowledge, and catharsis. Patiently, draft by draft, the memoirist applies writing craft to the fruits of introspection. To make ourselves characters on the page, we must see ourselves whole, from some distance. We must also see ourselves as others see us. What better way to get perspective on who we really are than to write ourselves into action, dialogue, setting, and social context with other people who are characters just like we are?

Those of you accustomed to building characters in fiction can take it from here, paying special attention to the techniques for rounding and for providing outside perspective on first person narrators. For those interested in my advice on building character, in fiction or nonfiction, tune in next time.

Christine Hale’s debut novel, Basil’s Dream, was published by Livingston Press in 2009 (details at christinehalebooks.com). Her prose has appeared in many journals, including Arts & Letters, North Dakota Quarterly and The Sun. Chris is a graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at Warren Wilson College and a fellow of MacDowell, Ucross, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She teaches in the Murray State University Low-Residency MFA Program in Kentucky as well as the Great Smokies Writing Program. She is writing a new novel and a spiritual memoir, both set in southern Appalachia, where she grew up.