Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Unleash the Past Do you have a memoir in you?

Five Scribe Readers, I met some fascinating people on my trip to Georgia, South and North Carolina last September.  One stop included a visit to Sisters in Crime/South Carolina Chapter.  One of my fellow SINC members is Danielle Dahl, author of Sirroco, a girl comes of age in war-torn Algeria.  She mentioned at our meeting that she was writing a memoir.  Impressed, I wanted to know more.  Please welcome Danielle Dahl as she talks about memoirs. 
How to write a great memoir.  Dig deep.  Resign yourself to guilt of things done and regrets of things left undone.  Know that anguish and sleepless nights will go away. In time. And, above all, don't spare the laughter.   ~  from the website of Danielle Dahl

My eyebrows shot up and I glared at my critique partners. “Write a memoir? Why would strangers be interested in childhood memories I’m writing as a legacy to my nephews and nieces?”

Howard said, “If you added a little-known piece of world history to your stories about family dynamics and your descriptions of war-torn Algeria, your memoir would not only interest, but resonate with your readers.  Especially since this fifty-year-old historical issue mirrors modern global problems."
“Nah! I don’t want to go there. Couldn’t bear the hurt.”

“Perhaps the telling will exorcise the hurt. Besides, isn’t it part of what made you the person you are now?”

I brushed the question aside and interjected one of my own, “And how do you think my family will feel having our personal history made public?”

“You don’t need to tell all. Be tactful. More important, do not seek their blessings as their memories might be different, if not opposite, to yours. Just tell your story, your truth, as you remember it.”

My two other critique partners nodded, causing me to wonder. Do I have a memoir in me? 

“Really? A memoir?”

“Yes, a memoir. Your memoir.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to write a fiction, which would give me the latitude to manipulate, create or recreate facts to fit the story?” I took a breath then went on. “I understand that memoirs do not allow such artistic license. They require faithful representation of facts. In brief, a memoir writer must subject the story to the facts—”

“Ah, but consider this,” Howard cut in. “The best feature of memoir versus fiction writing is that in the former, your plot, your era, are already set. Your characters are drawn. The sensations, emotions, tastes, sounds colors have already been experienced. They are there waiting for you to bring them back to life.”

So, I gave in to the idea of writing my memoir, but would I have enough stories to make up a book? I worried, twisting the ring on my finger. My grandmother’s ring. My mother had presented it to me the day I left home… That moment unfolded before me. Maman’s tearful smile. The auburn frame of her curls. The afternoon sunlight slanting through the open French doors. The light breeze cooling my face. The squeals of kids playing ball in the street. The rich aroma of roasting chicken…

I started as if waking up from a catnap. Heart pounding. Thrilled. I had just come up with the topic for a new story.

SO, THAT’S THE WAY IT IS! An object, perhaps a photo, a sound, the feel of a touch, a taste—very much like Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time where he describes tasting a madeleine cake dipped in tea that jump-starts a chain reaction recall of nostalgic memories. 

Five senses, five windows to reach into the past, unleash the flow.

In my excitement, I hurried to my computer, sat down, hand hovering above the keyboard and…blank. The white page as uninspiring as a virgin canvas. I panicked. Where did the flash of memory inspired by the ring go? RING. Ah, Yes!

I typed, ‘Ring’ then ‘Mother’ then ‘The day Maman gave me her mother’s ring…’ 

My fingers started flying over the keyboard, propelling words onto the screen.

That day, I learned that, as is true for almost everything in life, story writing starts with one step at a time—one word.

Writing snapshots of the fun childhood episodes I shared with my brothers and sisters had always been a joy—not that I didn’t remember the other times. It’s just that I only chose to keep alive the feel-good moments. Keep the less tasteful ones locked inside the deeper folds of my brain.

I reluctantly committed to retrieve the bad, relive it for the sake of the story, the truth. During the fact-checking research process, I tore at scabs I hadn’t realized were still festering. I sobbed uncontrollably. Couldn’t sleep. Had nightmares when I did. The anguish lasted days at a time during which I was unable to write—like hitting a stone wall. Then, with great effort, I’d sit at my computer, scale the wall or walk around it, pick up the thread until the story slid back into the fun times. Back into sunlight.

I read books and blogs on writing, attended conferences, lectures. Learned that rather than following the linear thread of a story, as happens in diaries, memoir writing, as in fiction, needs to pick up the thread of a story any place other than at its beginning, thus arousing the readers’ interest. Cajoling them into finding out what comes next.

I learned that in memoir writing, just as in fiction, the first concern should be to put down the raw story, keep the inspiration juices flow. Speak from the heart. Let my voice sing. Leave the task of the various edits and polishing to further drafts.

When I had exhausted my critique partners and beta readers’ feedbacks and believed my fourth draft was IT, I submitted it to a professional editor who suggested my memoir would be better served saving parts of my story for my next memoir. Several anguished soul-searching days later I cut out twenty-five thousand words. Painful, but wise as the sacrifice ended in a tighter story, teaching me in the process a valuable lesson in humility: not to fall in love with my writing.

Humility, a great quality for fiction writers to develop, must become a virtue for memoir writers to cultivate as they expose their most inner selves. Their strengths and weaknesses. Their virtues and dark sides.  They must learn not to take constructive criticisms from critique partners, beta readers, and editors as personal offenses, but as a team effort toward the good of their story.

A story—we all have one to tell, but will it resonate with our readers? I discovered that mine did. What about yours?

Do you have a memoir in you?

Danielle Dahl is a member of the South Carolina Writers Workshop, Sisters in Crime, the National Association of Memoir Writers, and the Seneca Writers Critique Group.  Dahl won second place in the 2011 Carrie McCray Memorial Literary Awards for nonfiction. She was semi-finalist in the 2011 William Faulkner Wisdom Competition for a novel-in-progress as well as for a short story. Lastly, two of her creative nonfiction stories appeared in the 2011 and 2012 Petigru Review Literary Journal.


Sisters of the Quill said...

Great thoughts. There are so many reasons to write your history, from sharing yourself with your family to letting the world know something only you do. Thanks for the post!

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Danielle, thanks for writing your memoir article. I think there's an art to writing them, plus I really think you have to had led a somewhat remarkable life. I don't necessarily think I have a memoir in me -- that's why I concentrate on fiction. You on the other hand, I can't wait to read this book. Thank you!

DanieD said...

Thank you, Sisters of the Quill and Donnell.
I hope that sharing in this post a small part of the knowledge I acquired while writing SIROCCO will encourage others to write, if not a memoir, then a piece of fiction for I believe each of us carries inside a story begging to see the light.
There is no secret that one learns how to write by writing. So write, learn, write and good luck.