Who Cares? The Art of Writing Memoir

Don’t let your grandfather tell you that only people who have lead long and storied lives can write their memoirs. He just doesn’t know the difference between memoir and autobiography. Memoirs are bits of a life, while autobiography is the whole damn thing. Most of us, if we’re writing nonfiction, are writing memoirs.

So who cares about your little life and its struggles? No one. But don’t kill yourself yet, because I’ve got a little secret: If you write well about something, people will care. That’s all you need. The ability to write and the ability to form your story into a coherent (or gleefully incoherent) narrative. Make people give a shit. Capture the room. All eyes on you.

Let’s talk about Henry Beston. I love Henry Beston. He lived in a tiny cabin in the dunes of Cape Cod, and he wrote about sand. Who fucking cares about sand, right? Read this:

[Apologies, I can’t find my copy of the damn book, but I’m leaving this here as a teaser. Beston is a fantastic author. My mother kept a collection of Beston books by her bed after my father died, and read them when she couldn’t sleep.]

Let’s talk about motels with swimming pools. They might be interesting to families with kids on the road, but other than that, yawn, right? Not so much.

My father’s Depression-era upbringing and economic sense made a swimming pool seem like an extravagance. No matter that rates for a motel with a pool differed little, if at all, from one without….Day’s end would come. We four kids unstuck our shorts from the seat vinyl and ricocheted off the windows, anticipating liberation from hours and hours of Balkans-style interaction inside the station wagon. We cruised past motels with happy children splashing in sunny blue pools until we found the only motel in town without one. And there we stopped.

The family budget…exacerbated my longing for those cool polygons of turquoise…Some four decades later, liberated from paternal principle and family dole, I plot my vindication. I shall swim across the Mojave…The water looked like Xiuhtecuhli, the Aztec prince of turquoise, a name for the sun’s male color and for the jade skirt of the goddess of eternal renewel. The water was utterly turquoise across distance and utterly colorless in the cup in my hands..Small movements of my body scattered the mirror into a glossy, trembling web, which in turn cast complex acts of light on the pool floor. This moment in the water overwhelmed me with desolation and desire” (Ellen Meloy, Anthropology of Turquoise)

No one cares, unless your prose grabs them by the throat and makes them care. What writer has lead you care about things you never imagined you would?




6 responses to “Who Cares? The Art of Writing Memoir

  1. Hmm. Memoir makes me nervous somehow, or skeptical. But I agree that good writing makes anything interesting. Kathryn Harrison’s THE KISS was so beautifully written that I could almost overlook my dislike for the author.

  2. I had to look up The Kiss to better understand the exchange above. I read a few pages online and was astounded by how drawn I was into the writing and how much I didn’t want to read the book.

    I can’t recall an example of my own though I know there are a few.

    In the opposite vein, I read a third of Wicked just because I wanted to know what the author did with the idea. But I gave up when I realized how I dreaded wading through his plodding, overblown yet anemic prose, and his relentless search for relevant details. One day when I’m rich, I guess I should just go look for the musical. It’s sad to lose a reader, who wants to know what happens, just because of the writing style.

    • Eric Hansen– I would never have predicted getting more than 2 pages into a book about orchids. And Tony Horwitz got me most of the way through a book about Civil War re-enactors, another subject I would have said had exactly zero interest for me (then I had to leave my friend’s place and couldn’t steal the book). I did make it all the way through Wicked, but mostly because I kept trying to figure out why people liked it so much.

      I have a general skepticism about memoir too, but somehow the idea of it as bits of a life sounds better to me.

      • Y, I have a mad literary crush on Tony Horwitz. (And I own “Confederates in the Attic,” should you ever want to finish it.)

        Sparks, I get defeated by “overblown yet anemic” prose all the time.

  3. I am not skeptical of memoirs. I accept them for what they are, which is someone mining memory to tell a story, and memory is fallible. I’m 4 years into writing my own Me-moir and it’s constantly surprising to me how something I wrote 3 or 4 years ago can start to seem like “did that really happen that way?” I liken it to reading a book when you’re 15, and then re-reading it when you’re 22 and 35 and 46 — you notice different things, and somethings you never saw before (but were, of course, there) suddenly seem to appear.

    The Kiss is an all-time favorite for her sparse prose, the way she never uses anyone’s name, and bravery. A love and torture triangle.

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