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What Works for Me

Since publishing my memoir, I've been asked by a few writers involved in writing their own memoirs for some helpful tips. Strangely, I always feel presumptuous in giving out advice, probably because what works for me might not work for someone else. For instance, when Tina Brown interviewed Philip Roth (check it out on the Publisher's Marketplace website), she asked if he writes a "vomit draft," and he replied that he does something similar--in effect he builds what he calls the floor under his feet that he can "walk on." Well, I think that's an amazing skill, but I've never been able to write a book all the way through without editing it as I go. I write an outline, yes, because I need to know where it's all going to end up. But the first draft all the way through? Maybe I'm silly, but I hate leaving a trail of bad writing. Probably because I'm afraid that when I finish the manuscript and go back to the beginning for the next round I'll find such a mess that I'll lose heart and hate the book. So I obsess over what's in front of me, and don't look ahead until I have what I've started right.

Having said all this, maybe I should learn from Roth and let go. His method seems like a lot more fun. And, well. . . he's Philip Roth.

At any rate, an intern at Memoir Journal asked me this question recently: What suggestions can you offer to emerging writers exploring their autobiographical selves? and this was my answer: 

Hug close to the critical moments. Overwrite them—at least initially. Crawl inside them. Explore the rooms and closets of them. Turn up the lights. Move the furniture around. Ask yourself why they are important (they might not be as important as you think) and be honest with yourself. If you discover that a scene isn’t as important as you thought, cut it. Sometimes you have to be brutal in the decisions you make. If you’re writing a memoir, understand that you don’t need to record every mundane anecdote. Choose scenes that function to move the narrative along meaningfully. Write with a bigger point in mind. Trust me, the “I” is not the point but the vehicle in your search for the point, which should be universal to humanity. Also, have a sense of humor about yourself. Don’t take your sufferings too seriously— no doubt someone else has it worse. Be kind to those you write about—see things from their point of view. Remember, nobody is all good or all evil. And finally, be mindful of dialogue. The memoirs I abandon the fastest are the ones with weak or pointless dialogue. Conversation should illustrate as well as (or better than) descriptive prose.

The intern then asked who my favorite memoirist is, and I gave her a list of some I've enjoyed recently. 

Primo Levy (If This is a Man) for his handling of his experience at Auschwitz with art and grace, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Infidel) for her objective restraint, Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) for his poetic lack of restraint, Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club) for her lyricism, Jeannette Walls (The Glass Castle) and Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius) for their senses of humor, Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking) for her deadpan wit and meticulous prose, Alexandra Fuller (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight) for her dialogue, Nabokov (Speak Memory) for how he blends truth with art. . . There are so many it’s sort of foolish to even attempt a list. But I will say that the memoirists I avoid are those who use the genre for therapy or self-aggrandizement. You know the kind I’m talking about.