The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life by Marion Roach Smith
I can't believe how amazing this book was. I seriously went into it with curiosity and low expectations. Why? Because there are so many bad books on writing out in the world. But why read this one? Probably due to the marvel that is cookies and advertising. It caught my eye somewhere, maybe it was in a blog post, or maybe it was a behavioral ad on some website somewhere. I bought the book and there it sat on my Kindle app. Sitting on my couch thinking to myself, "I'm between books, why not try something light, like, just the first few paragraphs of this little book on writing." Not kidding, I have those kinds of discussions in my head. Or with my son, even the cat isn't spared. What hit me first was some of the most beautiful writing I have ever seen. Crafted and arranged so well, the words never let me go. So, now I'm reading this on the writing alone. When I'm suddenly hit by the content and intent of the words. Right up there with Bird-by-Bird, another favorite book on writing. The formulaic (not really all that formulaic) way of boiling down the essence of what one is really writing about, that is such a golden key to carry with me for the rest of my life. Then the highlighting happened. I'm finished with the book and I'm pissed, it's over. I have to get over myself and go try the advice, gladly. Want to read great writing, read this, it makes zero difference if you want to write. If you want to write well, add this to your must-read list. Want to write memoir's, then this better be at the top of the list. Enjoy!
My Notes (Highlights from Kindle App & Any Notes by Me.)
Seeing our connections, considering them, describing them—that’s where writing what you know begins.
What is this about? Mine was about “the dramatic story of a family’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.” What’s yours about?
Instead, while writing about the hideous aspects of life, you should attempt to teach us something about the behavior of those involved, about your behavior, about all human behavior. Let us into your story by shedding light on our own dilemmas, fears, happiness, or wide-eyed wonder.
“What is it about?”
Not to go all bumper sticker on you, but learn to write with intent and you might learn something about life—as you will when you learn to reduce the essence of the piece to a single totemic emotion such as “pity” or “joy,” a single experience such as “freedom” or “redemption,” or even a single phrase such as “the dramatic story of a family’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.”
Capture the moment of “aha!” and you’ll find one specific story that you can drive forward.
Do you see what is happening here? You are shifting yourself—your story—into a new position of importance, where you are no longer the center of the tale. The story’s theme now occupies that place of prominence—the “what is this about” being the main attraction.
Look back a few sentences and insert your details into the “this is an (x) and the illustration is (y)” algorithm,
defining “autobiography” as a book-length depiction of one’s entire life and “memoir” as depicting a specific aspect of that life.
So ask yourself, “What is this about?” applying that question to one scene, a single event, or a singular appreciation of something in your life.
How it happened is not what makes it interesting. That it happened at all—why it happened and where you go from there—is interesting.
So those are the three rules of memoir. They ask you to tell the truth by making every page drive one story forward and have a context the reader can relate to. Now, the only question is what to write.
real expressions of national pride—much like personal pride—are a comfort we grow into, and perhaps patriotism is not the love-it-or-leave-it choice we were once told
it was, but rather the delicatessen plan that most complex issues reveal themselves to be. Maybe now you vote and you sing the national anthem, though you didn’t do either in college. Maybe right now you won’t float, though maybe someday you will. I started to think that we pick and choose and change as we grow, even on topics as substantial as patriotism and our expressions of it.
And that’s pretty much the way America started to look to me as I crafted the essay on the topic of patriotism: one nation, indivisible but comprised of individuals at varying levels of patriotism.
It’s an essay about patriotism—as illustrated by how one summer, after much debate, I finally climbed aboard a holiday float—to be written for a magazine.
It’s the same with your own tale. Of course it’s of value to you, but how are you going to make it of value to me as well? Here’s how: Make it small. Make it rare. Make it a first for me as a reader, and I’ll remember it forever.
It is quite simply the greatest, fastest method to learn to pack light. At about 750 words, a personal essay gives the writer more than enough space to tell one tale from her point of view.
Mere flashes are all the understanding you need bring to the writing table.
Because when you have a flash of understanding on one topic, you can write an essay. Write an essay and you tackle a scene. Master the scene and you can write seventy-five of them and have yourself a book. And here’s an unexpected dividend: Write a book about an aspect of your life and you might gain perspective, since just as in living, success in writing is all about which details you choose to emphasize.
“Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience.”
long strides of human endeavor, recognize those great failings and those long last
In long-form memoir, the only way to find a structure is to first reduce your book idea to one sentence.
Let’s say your one sentence—your argument (and all books are an argument, no matter how small)—is that life is really hard unless you get a good cat to live with. Great. Here’s how that will break down. By each phrase: Life. Is hard. Really hard. Unless. You get. A good cat. To live with.
Life: Who you are. Is hard. Really hard: First show us hard, then show us really hard. One chapter each. Unless: This is where you show us that you are open to alternatives. You get: This is where you show us all the things you’ve tried in order to make your life better, like speed dating, dieting, drinking
heavily, perhaps. A good cat: Maybe you’ve had bad cats or good cats. Tell us. To live with: Show us living with that one good cat. Maybe there is a sad ending. Or a happy one. Or a sad one turned happy when the good cat dies and you have the courage to try again with a new cat. See how this works?
In shorter pieces, the tried-and-true template for foolproof structure is the bagel,
Just make a simple circle, beginning with one image—your
Open and close with the same idea, put some proof in the middle, the ring is complete, and you’re done.
“Maxims, stats, clichés.” That’s precisely what you need to use to pave your draft—all that crazy crap in your head, including maxims, proverbs, clichés, tired old phrases, misspellings, bumper-sticker aphorisms, Cher lyrics, treacly bywords, needlepoint-pillow prophecies, dictum/dicta, and whatever else you’ve got. Write it down. It’s all going to go away later,
these old familiars are place markers until your argument takes shape and the right language falls into place.
The other method, where you choose each word carefully as you go? It’s the death of writing.
there’s no right word when there’s nothing on the page,
Instead of replicating events, think about intent. If I don’t know exactly how something was actually said, I tell you that a conversation went “something like this,” but never alter the intent of the exchange.
To successfully heighten and add, you have to be somewhat ruthless. It’s hard when editing your own life. So I suggest going into the piece several times, each time with a single task in mind.
Print out your draft and write in the margin what each paragraph does. This is called indexing.
Moving on through the piece, you’ll see if the points of the argument are laid out and if the math adds up to your conclusion.
Starting again at paragraph one, search for all sentences beginning with “I”
Circle every one and rewrite at least two-thirds of those sentences to begin with action. Instead of saying, “I ran over the good cat with whom I had come to live,” edit it to read, “Backing the car out of the driveway...” and continue on, rewriting all the way through.
Next: Adjectives and their nouns. Circle every pair.
Next edit: Search for unnecessarily long sentences.
Heightening and adding, all the way through. It gets better and better and better. And shorter
Each successive edit must be ruthless: Pencil in hand, touch each word in every sentence, make hard decisions. Is there a shorter way to say this? A cleaner, more precise way? Each phrase
To get there quickly, read aloud. Reading someone’s copy while the writer reads it aloud—the method we use in the class—has made every single student a better reader. So
All projects have a punch list, including memoir projects. Here’s yours. Toss out your writing prompts Pay attention Write with intent Write what you know Include transcendence Be hospitable
Tell the truth Make every page drive one story forward Ask yourself, “What is this about?” Use the algorithm Go small Take notes Refer to reference books Focus your lens Think in propinquities Be counterphobic Read the news Make your argument
Map out your structure Vomit up a draft Plant your arrows Choose your audience Edit with murder on your mind