Yes, this is filled with whisky

Yes, this is filled with whisky

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Writing memoir? Here's a tip

Ann Beattie wrote a terrific line in one of my favorite short stories of all time, “Snow.”

This is what she said: “Any life will seem dramatic if you leave out mention of most of it.”

Holy Ghosts is a memoir and like most memoirs it leaves out a lot of the day-to-day experiences that a person has—standing on a line at the grocery store, cleaning the house, cooking food, doing laundry, the mundane but necessary things we do at work. To include all those things in a memoir would make for a cumbersome story and probably just bore people to tears.

So, this book really does focus primarily on the extraordinary circumstances that happened over a twelve month period in my family’s life (as well as a number of flashbacks from when I was a young boy). 

the complete interview with Gary Jansen is here.


Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

This is something I've worked hard to accomplish. It's a good reminder as I'm about to return to my wip.

Kitty said...

On the other hand, it's those very mundane things that makes Rodger Jacobs' various blogs interesting. He's a writer who fell on hard times years ago. I've been following his health and money problems for several years, from LA to Vegas to San Francisco, where he now lives. His latest blog is Kerouac Drank Here.

steeleweed said...

Started writing a memoir but it's on hold while I reread some I liked, to find out why I was boring myself to death.
I find the focus must be on events rather than an 'I saw, I did' approach. When the author does get mentioned, it must be very personal, to trigger the reader's recognition of their common humanity.

I highly recommend the late Joe Bageant's Rainbow Pie" as an example which both displays a life and the milieau in which it was lived.

ryan field said...

"is a memoir and like most memoirs it leaves out a lot of the day-to-day experiences that a person has—standing on a line at the grocery store, cleaning the house, cooking food, doing laundry, the mundane but necessary things we do at work."

I agree for the most part, especially with memoirs. But sometimes it depends on the author and how the mundane things are presented. Anne Tyler built a wonderful career around the mundane things in life. There's one scene in a supermarket that's priceless. I know that's fiction. But I do think it depends on how creative the author is and how the mundane scenes are executed.

Fanfreakingtastic Flower said...

Thanks for the link...I just spent a good three hours at Religion Dispatches and have bookmarked the site. I love me some thinkin' religion.

jesse said...

In a way, all fiction is memoir. The author stretches him/herself across a few characters, fills in some colorful detail, and leaves out everyone's boring parts.

alwayscoffee said...

Those were awesome quotes. I'm writing the one by Ann Beattie on a post-it, and it's going on my cork board.

Jesse, I don't know if I believe that all fiction is memoir. For one thing, that implies there's always an autobiographical link between an author and a text. For another thing, I wouldn't know how to place a book like MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. Or some of the books I've read where the "boring parts" are crucial to the story.

Janet Reid said...

god almighty I hope the Jack Reacher novels are NOT memoir!

Karin said...

On the other hand, there's the Norwegian best seller Min Kamp (yes, like in Mein Kampf!) where a guy tells everything, day by day about making breakfast, changing diapers, cleaning the house, shopping, quarreling with his wife, going on long strolls to put the baby to sleep etc, etc, etc. Selling VERY well! I haven't read it, but people I trust say that it's fascinating!

Lynn(e) said...

Wait, so...people don't want to read about what flavor toothpaste I use?


This actually was an awesome post. It definitely gave me something to consider. As always, thanks, Janet.

jesse said...


A link always exists. The author may not have (and probably hasn't) done all of the crazy things he/she's writing about. I'd be very surprised to find out that there is a Hogwarts, or even a single Breach Entity.

However, creating doesn't occur in a vacuum, it occurs in the authors head. He/She can only write what he/she knows, or can imagine.

It may not be literally memoir, but any given work of fiction can only be written by its given author. No one else has had the same experiences, and nobody else would put things together exactly the same way.

Laura said...

This is true for fiction, as well. No one cares that your character brushes her teeth every morning...

alwayscoffee said...

Janet, I nearly spit out my coffee. (Not the coffee!) Here's hoping! *grin*

Jesse, I agree with you that each work of fiction is individual. I can sit down and write something that is uniquely my creation. Since no one else possesses my experiences or perspective (and since to quote Dr. Knoll, I believe, fiction "springs out of a head, not a hat") -- my fiction is specific to my imagination. But that still doesn't make it (literally) a memoir, since it is fictional.

I do agree with you in that the author's only limitation is the imagination. That's why you can give ten authors the same writing prompt and end up with ten very different stories or novels. I don't think that a writer is limited to only what he/she knows, though -- because research (solid research, not Wikipedia) can fill in the gaps. It's how a lot of historical fiction writers accomplish beautiful novels (Deanna Raybourn's Julia Grey series and Michelle Moran's novels -- MADAME TUSSAUD being a personal favorite).

This has been a really interesting discussion. It made me consider things. Thank you for that.