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I hate writing, I love having written–Dorothy Parker


Memoir writing has become popular in recent years. It is no longer only the domain of the aging celebrity or political figure. Personal narratives dot the shelves of Barnes and Nobles and local libraries. Cheryl Strayed‘s raw and beautifully written memoir, Wild, about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail after the death of her mother made Oprah’s 2.0 book club list. Among the list of the must-read memoirs of 2012 were The Other Side of Suffering by John Ramsey, a story about a father losing his son, Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott, and Bloom by Kelle Hampton, a story about a mother of a child with Downe’s syndrome. Very few of the authors on this list were famous writers, artists, politicians or actors. Anne Lamott and Anna Quindlen are, of course, well-known and beloved authors, but the list included memoirs written by people who had experienced an incredible event in their lives, one that impacted them enough to put pen to paper and write their story. It seems the market is wide open for anyone with a gripping personal story and an ability to string words together into sentences.


But, according to Debra Gwartney, author of Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love, many novice memoir writers get stuck in the “episodic ‘what happened’ that they can’t escape the traps of anecdote.” Her article appears in the Jan/Feb. edition of Poets & Writers magazine, one subscription I’ll always renew.

Her advice to avoid the traps of anecdote is to shift our goal for writing a memoir from action and suspense to self-awareness. The dramatic or even traumatic events that may be the reason we want to write a memoir can still be included, but they need to be treated as doorways toward a deeper awareness of self and an understanding of the lessons learned from tragedy. If this sounds daunting, it is, but it is also possible to achieve even for non-professional writers.

Gwartney recommends using the tools of writing mainly used in fiction, but also used in powerful and effective non-fiction writing. These tools inform the basic craft of writing that writers strive to perfect. The way to achieve balance in your writing, especially when writing about situations or events that have an emotional charge to them is to write cool. In Gwartney’s words, “When the action is hot, write cool.” What does that look like? Here is an excerpt from a non-fiction essay by Ann Beard about the murder of her co-workers at a University in Iowa.

Reaches the top of the steps, looks around. Is disoriented suddenly. The ringing and the smoke and the dissatisfaction of not checking all the names off the list. A slamming and the running sound, the shout of police……Checks his watch, twelve minutes since it began. Places the barrel against his right temple. Fires.

Gwartney talks about Beard’s pacing, how she slows down the writing right before the worst is described. She uses varied sentence lengths, creating a tension that keeps the reader reading. “The reader is allowed to step into the moment because the experience, awful as it is, opens up with care and precision.”

I believe the division between the craft of non-fiction and fiction writing is growing smaller. I’ve read some memoirs that read like fiction and some novels that read like memoirs. Writing is writing no matter if the ‘truth’ shouts or whispers to the reader.

For more stories in Poets & Writers, visit: http://www.pw.org/magazine

–Erin Dougherty