I am co-creating a memoir-writing class at our church. When this was first proposed, someone said we shouldn’t do it because writing a memoir might call up too many strong emotions from someone, presumably with difficulties in their lives, like childhood abuse or an abusive marriage or loss of a child.
We are going ahead with the project, but how would you respond to such an objection, and, more importantly, how to help attendees with such challenges? I’ve always thought that writing was one of the best ways to re-address and help heal such challenges from the distance of time and perspective. — Carol at Church
Dear Carol at Church,
Thank you for your excellent and thought-provoking question. I’m pleased to hear you are going ahead with the class!
As I’m sure you know, many memoirs are filled with (or contrasted by) joy and laughter, as well as poignancy or sadness, and not everyone in your class will want to write about the darker episodes in their lives. Each person has a choice to write about what she or he wants to in the way she or he wants to, emphasizing some events while diminishing others in order to set the mood and shape the narrative.
This brings up an important aspect of memoir writing. Shaping a story from life offers the writer the opportunity to find meaning in apparently random events, which is deeply healing, and goes beyond simply recording what happened. In this way you truly are, as you wrote helping to “heal challenges from the distance of time and perspective.” When our stories entertain, enlighten or help others, the reward is even greater.
Of course a memoir class is not therapy, and, though unlikely, it is possible that memories will surface that the writer has difficulty handling. In that event the student can be referred to a pastor or therapist.
—It might be helpful at your first meeting to ask each person to articulate why he or she wants to write a memoir. While some may appreciate the opportunity to create a legacy of family histories, others may want to explore life lessons, or relate funny anecdotes, or explore what went wrong in the past in order to better face the future.
—Next, ask each person if the content of the memoir is intended to be a private story, or one meant to be shared with families, friends, or the public, and whether she or he is comfortable with the subject of the story. Have each person imagine doing a book signing or giving a talk on the memoir. Does she or he feel at ease discussing the book, taking questions, or hearing similar stories from others?
—Whether or not stories are intended to be private, I suggest that you ask the other students to keep them confidential, whether in or out of church. It’s important for everyone in the group to trust each other and to feel safe in the context of the class.
—If the class has already started and you haven’t done something like this, I suggest you discuss these issues at the next class.
Carol at Church, by offering a memoir-writing class, you are providing a rare and wonderful opportunity to explore memories, regale others with tales of adventure or suspense, and, most of all, hit that gold vein of meaning that – light or dark – deepens our experience, and provides courage and consolation to ourselves and others.
I hope this is helpful, Carol. Please let us know how your class goes!
Here’s my problem. My memoir is a series of vignettes. How do I know when I have “enough.” I think of another story and decide to add it. Then I read one I’ve included and wonder if I should delete it. Is this the way to go? I’m sure it isn’t but I truly don’t know what to do as I move forward.–-Hung Up
This is the essential problem with all memoirs – what to leave in, and what to leave out. But the good news is, you are in excellent company! Annie Dillard, author of An American Childhood noted that “The writer of any work, and particularly any nonfiction work, must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out…”
This is an especially difficult decision to make during the euphoria of early drafts, when everything you write seems evocative and relevant. But most likely your vignettes are related by theme even if you are not aware of the connections.
—Think of your stories as stars shining in the night sky, making a constellation, a shape, a pattern. What connects one star (story) to another? In other words, what is the theme of your memoir, what is it really about? The answer to this question will clarify what stories contribute to your narrative, and which are random or unrelated episodes.
—If there is a chapter or story you can’t bear to let go of, take a long look at it and ask yourself if it might fit in from a different angle? For instance, if your story is about how you ran away from home on your tricycle when you were four, yet you can’t bear not including the story of the cat you rescued later, maybe the cat was also a runaway. Now the two stories are connected. Part of being creative is finding the odd angle or connection no one else has thought of.
Hung Up, although William Faulkner said that in writing you must “kill your darlings,” I have found you only have to kill the darlings who don’t contribute to your theme, or move your narrative forward. All your other darlings can stay!
Good luck, and please let us know how it goes!
This column was originally published at womensmemoirs.com.