Monday, October 17, 2011

On Writing: Part Nine

Story-crafting is a term that I prefer over most others when it comes to discussions about the act of “writing” fiction in the twenty-first century.  To reiterate some of the points I have made earlier in the series, I don’t believe in super-realistic backstories or clever experimental styles, so it is important to have a term that allows me to talk about “writing” in a way that separates my vision of the act and process from the traditional conception of modern “writing”. 

To that end, I want to take a moment to discuss memoirs, as this is by far the fastest growing section of the market after Young Adult Generic Fantasy Romance.  For a memoir to be successful, and I’m not referring to the commercial notion at this point, the author needs to balance craft and truth.  This is almost directly opposite of the tool of the novelist who substitutes fiction for truth.  Because of that, memoir-writing is much more difficult, no matter how interesting you think your own story is, your role becomes communicating that story in an honest way that incorporates the same kind of story-craft that fiction does, but limits it by virtue of mandating that same honesty.

In general, when you join a group dedicated to polishing their memoir, you are entering into a contract with the other authors that you will pretend to find their life interesting in order to help them make it into a story.  Most of the time, I find that even harder than pretending that some would-be novelist’s three hundredth version of Romeo and Juliet is bearable.  (Hence the reason everyone who has ever bought me a copy of Twilight begging me to “just try it, it’s better than you think” receives a paperback version of the play, with the inscription: “No, it’s not.  Read the original.  The dialogue is four hundred years old and is more realistic. And as a bonus, you get no sparkly vampires.)

I do have some advice though, in case you really want to put yourself through the hell of memoir-writing.  Avoid the temptation to include stories that you think are funny or profound.  That’s the extent of my advice, and it can be explained rather simply as, don’t tell the stories that make you laugh, unless you are prepared to spend thirty pages on exposition to set context, and don’t tell stories that make you cry, unless you are prepared for people to give you very odd looks when you describe the death of your gerbil. 

The key there is that the stories that most impacted you are memorable to you because of how they shaped your own life.  Your life is very different from that of your readers.  Unless your goal is to share with family some of the embarrassing back-stories behind the joke you tell every year at Thanksgiving, most of your readers are going to respond differently to the events you present.  So tell them the stories that they will think are funny.  These stories tend to be embarrassing for you, or profound in a very general sense.  When writing personal essays and memoirs, having a circle of friends who can tell you, honestly, if something is working is critical.

You can be objective when writing a novel, because in that situation story-craft can guide you and you have an understanding of the goals and process behind your plotting.  With memoir, you will not be objective, no matter how Zen you are, and the temptation to try and present your “building a soap-box derby car with my father” story, complete with lamentations that you never spent enough time with him will override your literary sense to tell a story that matters. 

The memoirists that I read and enjoy tend to write their stories in a way that makes them seem like fiction, but too outlandish to be made up.  If you only have one “stumbling drunk out of the bar one night and going up to Random Celebrity A and slapping his ass before going to Waffle House and getting robbed” story, don’t try and stretch it out to 150 pages.  Just write one essay and move on.

Very few people have lives filled with enough stories to make their memoirs readable, and few of the people whose lives are filled with that kind of content are sober enough to write a whole book.

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