“Who would read a book about your life?” That question came from a former friend, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who in 1995 aimed to convince me writing a memoir was pure folly and would likely ruin my career as a serious journalist.
After selling nearly 100,000 copies in seven languages of I Closed My Eyes published in 1999, I am glad I heeded my instinct and didn’t listen. Four other books, chapters and thousands of personal essays later, I recently published a second memoir, Escape Points. Trust me, I asked myself, “Who would read a second memoir about your life?”
I decided of course, that was not the right question and proceeded. As anyone who writes creative nonfiction memoir or essays can attest, the process is not ultimately about writing for a prescribed audience. Instead it is about writing the best possible articulation of a larger truth in a graceful, artful manner. Along the way I have learned a few things about what it means to write a personal truth for a public audience.
In writing both my first and second memoirs, it is the diligent quest for good writing that keeps me grounded to the mission of telling a true story. I did not write another memoir because I think I am profoundly interesting. I wrote a second memoir because the narrative of raising my sons in the face of paternal abandonment, cancer and a blooming career was a story I had never read. It was one I needed to tell as much as I wanted other women like me to understand was possible; that there is redemption in family, friends and community. That you can create happy endings.
It sounds simple, but it is of course, not at all.
I have discovered in more than three decades of writing for love and money, Muriel Spark’s assertion that when she was writing she was taking dictation from God is an aggressive act of denial and projection. God was never dictating to me. I find writing to be an intellectually, emotionally and creatively athletic challenge. God is never sitting beside my laptop; she has other things to do.
I find that in order for the writing to go well—and in particular writing that may conjure painful memories and difficult realities– I have to be always open to new ideas, new writing risks. If the original plan is not working, I have to be open to changing it.
In writing a memoir that requires soul-searching, since reflection, researching and attention to meticulous detail, you have to pay attention. Your mind can be busy, but not fully occupied without any available rental property. You can be a six-flat, but you have to have two available apartments for the writing. Be immersed in the writing process and in the story.
The world needs true stories. But the truth telling cannot be salacious or malicious, because if that is the motivation then it won’t work well. It will be hollow. Revenge can’t drive it. A desire to profoundly recreate a meaningful experience and to apply the techniques of literature to a life moment or phase– that is the foundation of the kind of nonfiction writing I do and aspire to get better at doing.
In order for that to happen I absolutely must be quiet. We are all good at multi-tasking. But writing is not something I can do while doing something else—making breakfast or driving to work. Writing demands my full attention if I am going to write more than a simple list of what I need to buy at the grocery store.
I need to attend to the words within me, to try to wrestle them to the surface and be sure they are the precise words I want to describe what it is I am feeling and thinking.
Along with the sense of quiet and intense focus, I find that being as authentic as humanly possible with my true voice is best. Don’t falsify the experience with vocabulary intended to impress someone. Don’t try too hard; use your genuinely natural expressions. This way your writing will be an authentic expression of your own experience.
Genius is in the connections you make in the writing. Highly creative people have the ability to take completely disparate ideas, objects and events, find the commonality and connect them. Your new way of expressing those connections is what makes great writing.
And in memoir it is essential. You need to convey not only what does an event/place/character look like, sound like, smell like, feel like, but also what does it remind you of? You are not dictating a laundry list or simply compiling a chronological regurgitation of events. You are creating art.
There is writing that simply recreates events like a ship captain’s log, telling where the ship is at what time and what are the activities of the crew. But in artful memoir, you are moving beyond a fast food kind of writing. Your graceful narrative writing will delve deeper into the whys and why nots, rather than just examining on the surface what is there.
This is not drive-through writing. This is a sit down and enjoy a six- course meal kind of writing. You need to not be rushed, but to take your time to carefully explain what it is exactly that you mean. Choose your words judiciously because you want to be accurate about explaining the state of your heart and mind. The goal is to be memorable.
For now, I believe two is my limit on memoirs. I am pleased with the results, but I want to dare myself to try on other writing modes.
An award-winning journalist and author for more than three decades, Michele Weldon is emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University, where she taught for 18 years.
Her commentary appears regularly in outlets such as New York Times, Al Jazeera, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, CNN, Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Medium, More.com, Narratively, Newsday, Nieman Narrative Digest, Pacific Standard, Parenting, Quartz, Slate, Writer’s Digest and hundreds more. She has worked as an editor, columnist and staff writer on newspapers and magazines including ADWEEK and the Dallas Times Herald.
Weldon has delivered more than 200 keynotes globally and has been a guest on hundreds of radio and television shows including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” NPR, NBC, ABC, CNN, Huffington Post Live, CBS and BBC.
Find out more about Michele on her website http://micheleweldon.com/
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