For writers, the choice of what type of book to write varies from fiction, which includes, among others, mystery, romance, or historical novels, to non-fiction, with memoirs sitting close to but seldom at the top of the list. To write a successful book in a fiction genre, an author must be able to speak through his characters, conveying what they see and feel with realism, yet choosing to reveal only what fits the plot or a character’s journey. “My hero or heroine would never say or do that” is a line we often hear. What the statement tells us is that the author is controlling the way the character conducts himself on the page. In a memoir, on the other hand, the author has no choice but to shed the clothes of pride, and show the good, the bad and the ugly about himself and his world. No editing of the author’s behavior comes into play. As one of my readers, Philip, aptly put it, a memoir is a “no gloves” kind of writing. It can bring calluses to the hands and soul. If so, why write a memoir?
In my case, I rejected the idea for the longest time. I wanted to write a novel instead, using events of my past, but fictionalizing the story and making my alter-ego a tall Latin hunk with dark wavy hair and a perennial 5-o’clock shadow, everything I am not. Little by little, however, I was pushed toward writing a memoir. People showed more interest in my participation in the personal events I talked to them about than in some fictional character’s reaction to them. Still, I was not convinced. To prepare myself for the kind of writing I thought I would do, I joined an online class on “Descriptive Writing.” After our first assignment, the critique I received from the group’s moderator and teacher was “You should write a memoir.”
There goes my Latin hunk, I thought. But, I couldn’t ignore the calling anymore.
To anchor myself in the genre, I decided to re- read Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes; afterwards, my hesitation about writing a memoir came back times ten. How could I compete with this magnificent storyteller? In my previous blog I asked my readers for their impressions on his memoir. A response from Alia mentions “vivid descriptions of both the utter poverty, yet sheer joy of his childhood in Ireland.” Her comments reflected my own visceral reaction to the work on my second reading. The theme of hunger, of physical depravation sang an aria of great emotional power. But what moved me most was the humor interwoven throughout the melodic angst, a true touch of genius.
A memoir does not have to unfold in chronological order as long as the various anecdotes reflect a unifying theme, which McCourt’s work did. As I considered my own memoir, I realized three things: 1) I knew the events I wanted to write about although not precisely in what order 2) I had no theme—in fact it was not until a third of the way into the book that one emerged; and 3) I knew that attempting an outline of the whole book first would be tantamount to never writing the memoir.
So, what did I do? Tune in to my next blog to learn how I handled both my strengths and limitations and how I developed my own game plan for working on the manuscript.