Ten Nuggets of Advice for Aspiring Writers of Memoir
1. Don’t despair for the lack of drama in your life. (Damn it all, why couldn’t I have grown up in China during the Cultural Revolution?) Every life contains its own drama and is potentially fascinating. If you feel compelled to write about your life, think about why this is so. It’s that why that will give your writing focus and lead you to places dark, beautiful and true.
2. If you write honestly, you will offend some readers. They will bristle at how you portray your high school and your hometown. They’ll disagree with your observations and the conclusions you draw from them. This is OK. Your job is not to make as many readers as comfortable as possible; it’s to tell your story as truly as you can. (Can you do this without causing real pain to people who matter to you? That’s another issue altogether.)
3. Giving in (even slightly) to the wish to appear better than you are is death to your writing. I’m on the liberal end of the scale when it comes to various techniques nonfiction writers are at liberty to use (e.g., recreating scene and dialogue). But I am Draconian about this rule. Fellow writers, we know when we’re trying to look good. Don’t do it.
4. You don’t need to wrap up loose ends. Memoir is not an ingeniously crafted mystery novel. It is life, it is messy, and there is always unfinished business. We write our stories to help understand them and to connect with others. The many questions that arise during the process of writing are at least as interesting as the answers.
5. Your book will likely take longer than you anticipated. (In my case, eight years longer.) This applies to memoir even more than fiction, I think. It can take years to realize the real focus of your ever-growing mass of material, and more years before you decide how to shape it.
6. Memory is more than subjective. It is a shape-shifting, perilously slippery ball of experience and emotion that assumes a different heft with every person who holds it. Remember that you are not writing the truth, but your truth.
7. Sometimes shorter is better. Enough said.
8. You will become a genuine character in your memoir, not through any conscious attempts to achieve this, but through how you filter your experiences in your writing.
9. Disregard what is hot or trendy in the publishing world. Write what you need to write. Remember the words of Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet: “A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgment of it: there is no other.”
10. A letter from someone who takes time to tell you how much your book meant to her is as sweet as the Pulitzer Prize. OK, maybe not quite as sweet. I wouldn’t know, having never won a Pulitzer. But I have received letters and emails from people I did not know who told me how deeply my writing affected them. Their generosity made all the hard work, all the rejection, worthwhile.
Francine Marie Tolf is the author two poetry collections, one previous memoir, and five chapbooks. Joliet Girl, her first memoir, was published by North Star Press in 2010. Joliet in My Blood picks up where Joliet Girl left off, with less emphasis on her family and more on her surroundings. Rain, Lilies, Luck was her first full-length collection of poetry, and Prodigal, her second full-length collection of poems, was published by Pinyon Publishing in 2012. A former Loft Mentor Series participant, her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Water-Stone, Mudlark, Spoon River, Poetry East, Under the Sun and Southern Humanities Review. Francine earned her Masters in English at Kansas State University and an MFA from the University of Minnesota. She lives and works in Minneapolis.