How to record reality, and not
Adapted from Michael Anthony’s memoir workshop at UMass Boston
“The art of [memoir] is not to say what we all can say, but to say what we can’t.” - Anis Anderson
Fiction conjures an imagined reality. It’s stylized prose. It focuses on form, plot, believability, and often includes magical realism (like winged horses, hobbits, and conveniently solvable homicides). Memoir, on the other hand, must tell the truth. Your stories already exist in memory. Each one played out in a series of conflicts, choices and interactions. A memoir writer’s job is to figure out what story to write based on real events, as remembered.
In workshops, when reading aloud drafts of our own memoirs, we may cry. We may try to lie a little here and there, or mask our true role in a drama because the truth is often embarrassing. Memoir is personal and revealing. It’s confessional. But with revision, a good memoir transcends the initial feelings of the author, and attempts to look unflinchingly at the truth.
Unlike an autobiography, a good memoir does not attempt to tell a whole life story. Instead it focuses on a certain transformative period of time. Start with an inciting incident, Michael Anthony, author of Mass Casualties and Civilianized, said in his workshop at UMass Boston on the art of memoir. To find the heart of your story, he said, figure out what you want to tell the world about life and just start writing. Start with the action that you most want to talk about, and build from there.
Starting your memoir might take several thousand words of “purple prose,” just literary throat clearing, an amalgamation of abstract metaphors, adverbs, adjectives and simile, to find out what your story is really about. Once you find the kernel of your story, the real action begins to unfold from there. But you have to start somewhere, and the best way to start is to just write down your thoughts. Once you’ve got something out on the page, writing becomes mostly revision.
We share our stories because it makes us better people, and telling the truth about your own experiences can make society better. Our stories help us define ethics and live well together.
As you begin to craft your memoir, think about the differences between the story you tell yourself verse the real facts. Focus on what actually happened. Subvert stereotypes. Think about what’s actually there.
Use source material, your journals, contemporary newspaper articles, and real physical descriptions of scenery. Use what’s in your memory. Try not to elaborate or speculate. Record the reality you experienced, not what you wish happened.
Exercise 1 of 3:
One way to begin writing your story is to study good stories already written down. Hunter S. Thompson said that he would copy writing he admired, by Hemingway for example, until he got into a good headspace to branch out and tell his own story.
In that spirit, consider the opening paragraphs from Turman Copote’s In Cold Blood:
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.
Holcomb, too, can be seen from great distances. Not that there is much to see--simply and aimless congregation of buildings divided in the center by the main line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad, a haphazard hamlet bounded on the south by a brown stretch of the Arkansas (pronounced “Ar-kan-sas”) River, on the north by a highway, Route 50, and on the east and west by prairie lands and wheat fields. After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the direst mud. At one end of the town stands a stark old stucco structure, the roof of which supports and electric sign--Dance--but the dancing has ceased and the advertisement has been dark for several years. Nearby is another building with an irrelevant sign, this one in flaking gold on a dirty window--Holcomb bank. The bank closed in 1933, and its former counting rooms have been converted into apartments. It is one of the town’s two “apartment houses,” the second being a ramshackle mansion known, because a good part of the local school’s faculty lives there, as the Teacherage. But the majority of Holcomb’s homes are in one-story frame affairs, with front porches.
Assignment: Notice the straightforward description of the place. He just relates facts, with very little editorializing. Take this approach to writing about a location that will appear in your memoir. This does not have to be the beginning of your book. It’s just an exercise. Try describing a place using only facts about the environment and scenery as you remember it, or take a trip. Revisit the place and write what you smell, hear, touch, taste and see.
Exercise 2 of 3
A metaphor: there’s a red cloud hanging over all of us, so it’s impossible to see anything without a shade of that red. It tints everything in view, and we’ve been living in it for so long that we don’t even realize it’s there.
It’s hard to look past your own perspective, and see yourself as others see you. Sometimes it’s worth hearing the same thing you experienced from another perspective. Sometimes, by listening to our friends, we can see another side of us. Try listening to criticism and critique from people with similar experiences, and use those sometimes painful tidbits of info to refocus the lens through which you share your story.
When we’re working on our memoirs, we need to figure out the color of the cloud we’re living under. We want to be able to offer some semblance of the larger picture around our own personal experience. What shades your perception?
Often, given time to reflect, we can transcend the perspective we had in a moment, but still we have that tendency to portray ourselves as the hero. Memoirs are confessional. They’re often embarrassing, and it’s important to remember that other people reading what you’re writing will see things differently.
Use this beginning from a chapter in Deni Bechard’s “Cures for Hunger” to think about your own experiences and how you will write them:
Racing trains was one of my favorite adventures. This was what we were doing on the day I first considered that my father might have problems with the law.
“Fourty-seven, fourty-eight, fourty-nine!”
My brother and I practiced counting as my father kept up with the train.
“I’ll push harder,” he shouted. He thrust his bearded chin forward and bugged out his eyes and jammed the accelerator to the floor. His green truck heaved along the road, outstripping the train whose tracks, just below the line of trees, skirted the incline.
Almost instantly we left the red engine behind. He swerved past the few cars we came up on with shouts of “Old goat!” The road straightened and leveled with the tracks, and he shifted gears and kept accelerating, though the train was far behind. Then he braked, holding my brother and me in place with his right arm, the air forced from my lungs as he spun the wheel with his free hand. We pulled onto the crossing though the warning lights on both posts flashed and bells rang.
With the truck straddling the tracks, he switched the motor off. He relaxed in his seat, looking out the passenger window, straight along the railroad.
As if on a TV scren, the train appeared in the distance, plummeting toward us. The engine broke from the shadow of the trees. Sunlight struck its red paint, and my brother and I began to scream.
My father turned the ignition.
Assignment: Write a piece of action, something that happened start to finish, and focus on the facts. Write something that you experienced but try to get past the emotions involved, and just write down the action. Imagine you’re writing an after action review or an incident report. Avoid value judgement.
Exercise 3 of 3
Once you’ve spent some time drafting your thoughts and memories, use the PAT method of revision:
Purpose: why are you writing?
Audience: who will read your memoir?
Tone: what words and voice are you using?
As you begin revising, the purpose of your story will give it structure. What choices did you make, and did the people around you make? Why? Can you identify your “Dark Night of the Soul” that moment that tested your convictions? At what moment did your purpose solidify in your psyche? Or did it collapse? Did you fight through a “dark night of the soul” or flee? All stories worth telling grow out of a period of testing, and your story will be a series of interlacing choices made in the heat of a series of moments. The goal is to identify those moments, what sticks in your memory, and describe what happened.
Battle stories are often compelling because they involve stark choices. The decisions to stay or to go can be life and death. But the actual killing or explosion parts (in writing as opposed to video) are often not as interesting as the psychological parts, the moments of decision.
Good writing puts the reader in boots on the ground considering the ramifications of each choice. Shakespeare, for example, let his characters make value judgements in speeches and soliloquies to expose the headspace of his characters. Think how the soldiers in the play Henry V felt as they decided whether or not to fight on the eve of battle in the king’s Saint Crispin’s Day Speech:
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Forming the lens through which we see our own stories takes time and revision. When we begin writing, we might not always see the whole picture. We might not know why we feel compelled to tell whatever story we’re telling. Think about your audience. They will only see what we show them, but we want them on our side. We want to write so our readers feel they get a fair and full picture.
Recalling your own stories can be like watching a horse race through a hole in a fence. You see a white horse passing a brown horse right there in your field of vision, so you think the white horse will win. But if you were sitting on top of the fence, maybe you’d see a black horse further behind, but gaining fast. You might not be so sure of the outcome in that case. The point of writing is to gain the perspective from the top of the fence, so that your story can say something meaningful about the race as a whole as well as the one little part you saw.
The question is, do we fight or do we retreat?
Regardless, we’re going to need to tell this story through some lense, but we want to be as conscious of the contours of that lense as possible.
As you consider what lense you see life through, read a passage from the beginning of “This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff:
Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the corner and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. “Oh, Toby,” my mother said, “he’s lost his brakes.”
The sound of the horn grew distant, then faded in the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.
By the time we got there, quite a few people were standing along the cliff where the truck went over. It had smashed through the guardrails and falled hundreds of feet through the empty space to the river below, where it lay on its back among the boulders. It looked pitifully small. A stream of thick black smoke rose from the cab, feathering out in the wind. My mother asked whether anyone had gone to report the accident. Someone had. We stood with the others at the cliff’s edge. Nobody spoke. My mother put her arm around my shoulder. For the rest of the day she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair. I saw that the time was right to make a play for souvenirs. I knew she had no money for them, and I had tried not to ask, but now that her guard was down I couldn’t help myself. When we pulled out of Grand Junction I owned a beaded Indian belt, beaded moccasins, and a bronze horse with a removable, tooled-leather saddle.
The goal is to get the more objective view of what your story is, and then to run that through a subjective narrator. What do you write down? What do you leave out? Is there any reason to embellish or equivocate? However your write, your reader will form her own opinion. If the reader feels you’re unreliable in an unlikable way, she will stop reading. Readers like to believe that they are getting an objective picture of what a narrator is laying out, and they will continue reading an unreliable narrator (like Huck Finn) only if .
Assignment: Go back and revise what you have written with extra attention to the perspective you wrote down. What do you objectively see, if you put yourself in the reader's shoes? Maybe share what you wrote on Reddit.com/r/WarriorWriters. Think, “What is the real lense that I’m viewing all this through?” Seek objective feedback.
For further reading, here’s a nice summary of the art of memoir: