Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Case of the Hidden Memoir

Seems like everyone is writing a memoir these days. It used to be that the only ones who wrote them for publication were people in high places--movie stars, politicians, sports heroes, authors of best-sellers--those types. But now everyone and her pedicurist is eager to tell all, and then some.

Even Writer's Digest (July/August 2010) acknowledges the trend by dedicating the current issue to the topic. What's the motivation for the proliferation of the genre? Jessica Strawser, in her "Editor's Letter" for the issue, says:
For some of us, we hope that a lesson we've learned the hard way might spare others pain, or help them feel like they're not alone in coping with a similar problem. For others, we've led interesting lives that people we meet genuinely seem to like hearing about--maybe we've even been told that we ought to write a book.

All right. I confess. More than one person has told me I should write a memoir. "Not everyone has had an attempt made on their life," they argue, or "Most people don't grow up in such a household," or "You should definitely tell about the time the hospital misplaced your newborn." While I appreciate such comments, I have absolutely no intentions of writing a memoir (so those of you who would be in it can take a deep breath and relax. Oprah won't be calling you. . . that I know of).

On the other hand, I happen to believe that all good writing contains memoir, albeit, covertly. Our own life experiences serve as tools to accomplish deep POV. How can we possibly know that character's emotions, thoughts, or intents unless we have experienced the same thing on some level. Even when we engage our imaginations to grasp a situation we have not lived personally, it must connect to something we have gone through. (Excuse me, but is my Stanislavski training showing?) If my character's sister dies, to understand her emotions, I need only to think back to when a sister-in-the-Lord passed away, for example.

My manuscript for Up the Rutted Road, a work of middle-grade fiction, includes some people and situations that would be mentioned in my memoir, were I to write one. The protagonist, ten-year-old Camie, is based on me. Aunt Charlene and Uncle Glen were real people. My story is true to the character of my aunt, but I greatly romanticized my uncle, writing him as I believed him to be when I was a child--not as the abusive alcoholic he actually was. A mountain hermit figures greatly in the story. I really did meet a hermit on a visit to my aunt and uncle's sharecropping farm, but had minimal contact with him. Like my main character, I wanted to know more about him.

Those are obvious bits of "memoir," but others that are not quite so overt pop up in most of my work--fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. If the reader is a mystery lover, she may try to discern fiction from fact. I hope my writing is good enough that she can't easily tell.

Write a memoir? Me? Never! Always!

Dear fellow writer, how does your own "memoir" work its way into your writing? Is it intentional, or does it just sneak in? Are you writing a memoir, or do you intend to do so?

Sharon Kirk Clifton


  1. Have a chicklit I've been working off and on for years. I know, it's not really suspense,but I simply loved this sassy character I developed. I wanted to be like her! She was full of sass, middle-aged, a bit on the heavy side, taught karate, soccer, Sunday school, and had kids she absolutely adored. Then I realized it one day, she was me. Then I felt sort of stupid for really liking her. Needless to say, I haven't done much with that one, rather moved to the suspense genre and have her shelved. She just might stay there.

  2. I love the thought that all our books can be memoir.

  3. My current WIP I hope to take to conference is definitely a spin off a memoir. Entitled, "The Pastor's Wife Wears Harley Boots" and I am a pastor's wife who dons said footwear and ride like the wind on my motorcycle! :-) I agree - our writing will always have a bit of us in it.

  4. PS I just realized the above comment is full of errors. Please forgive me as I'm also a multi-tasking Harley-Boot-wearin' crazy woman with three teenage boys and three hole-digging dogs at home this summer. My writing life is often full of distractions. Perhaps my next book should be entitled, "The Pastor's Wife Wears Too Many Hats!"