Three Reasons I Could Stop Writing Memoir But Won’t

March 15, 2017 § 22 Comments


zz ronitBy Ronit Feinglass Plank

I had been writing fiction and wanted to try nonfiction, so I began with personal essays. I didn’t think memoir was for me; in fact I was deliberately avoiding it. I didn’t see a reason to revisit the facts of my confusing childhood and thought memoir wouldn’t be as challenging as creating a world from scratch and putting characters in it. To tell my own story, the story I knew by heart, seemed almost too easy.

I could not have been more wrong. I was about to discover that looking at something you think you know pretty well with fresh eyes and trying to understand it in a new way is definitely not easy. I did try writing several personal essays but the history of how I grew up kept barging in, taking up more and more space. It seemed part of me really wanted to tell the story of my childhood. And this story, which I thought I knew so well, was becoming something else, different than I had always understood it.

I was beginning to learn for myself how the memoirist’s relationship to their narrative is ever-changing, revealing itself page by page, sometimes moment to moment, the way motor oil and water mingle in a puddle, colors swirling together in endless combinations. Just when you think you see how the colors and patterns are playing off each other, the light changes, or your vantage point shifts and you notice something new. Memoir is like that.

I continued excavating my past on the page, yet, even as I accumulated chapters, I was hesitant about this new genre. When friends asked what I was working on I’d practically apologize before confessing it was memoir. I had this idea nobody would want to read it. My self-talk went like this:

-Other memoirists might have had more painful experiences, what do I have to contribute?

-Don’t people think memoir is whiny?

-There are more important things happening in the world, who has time for a personal narrative?

            But, the longer I worked on my project the more confident I felt. I read a ton of memoirs and finished the first draft of mine. While I did I learned how to push past my misgivings with a kind of pep talk about memoir that goes like this:

1) My story isn’t as painful as other memoirists.

Writing memoir is not a competition for the worst or saddest story. Memoirists are charged with looking at their lives to find pattern and achieve some kind of understanding, not to out-pain other memoirists. People read memoir to understand a mind at work, hard at work in most cases, trying to piece apart what happened during a period of time and why the memoirist is still thinking about it now.

No one but you knows what it was like to be you and no one knows what it is like to be you looking back beginning to understand what you didn’t understand then. That’s why no two memoirs are the same even if they are both about mothers who leave or marriages that break up or the ravages of chronic illness, whatever your story might be.

It’s a memoirist’s response to their experience that is interesting. When faced with trouble in their lives, why does one person leave, while another digs in? Why does one person blame herself, and another blames others?

It is the memoirist’s unique insight that creates the point of view and voice that can make memoirs captivating.

2) Memoir is whiny.

I used to think memoir was navel-gazing, the writing equivalent of pouting or, worse, blaming others. I may have gotten this idea from the way I lived my life, thinking that I was supposed to be “strong” at all times. I believed I should suck it up, should handle hardships on my own. I worried that it was weak to dwell on events of the past, which is what I thought memoir was. But memoir is not for finger-pointing or for self-pity. Just like healthy relationships get built with honesty and improve with accountability, so does memoir.

It is courageous to look at the story you have told yourself for years and pick it apart to understand it more, to recognize your own habits and tendencies. Vulnerability is not a liability; it is a form of strength. It takes guts to see how you have played a part in what has occurred in your life.

The power of a memoir lies in the ability of a memoirist to see herself clearly, to see the part she played. It is the opposite of woe is me or why me? It’s more of a how come and what next? Now that you see more of the truth, what will you do with it?  This is the momentum that drives the narrative forward, the tension the reader feels witnessing a dynamic mind at work.

3) There are bigger problems in the world than my lower middle class American story.

Sometimes it feels like pain is everywhere. And, for me at least, when I see how much hardship there is close to me, around me, very far from me, I feel overwhelmed. So why should I add my voice to the chorus of sadness?

My answer is the more room we make within ourselves, the more room we have. When a child gets hurt we take care of the child, we don’t push them away and tell them other kids have it worse. That would only teach them not to have empathy for others or for themselves.

Readers of literature care about people, they are interested in their experience. Writers give them that experience. People might read a memoirist’s story and see that they are not alone, or feel it as a call to action, to pay attention and look for meaning within themselves, try to understand the people they are close to.

Learning about other people’s lives is a way to see what you think about your own. Can you feel for others as you feel for yourself? Can you feel for yourself as you feel for others? I believe there’s no limit to the compassion in the world. There’s room for us all.

These days when people ask me what I am working on I tell them, “the second draft of my memoir”. I definitely still have doubts, but I know I’ll never finish if I let fear take over. And I don’t want to stop writing my story. I really want to see how it turns out.
__

Ronit Feinglass Plank’s work is forthcoming in Proximity Magazine and has appeared in The American Literary ReviewSalonBest New Writing 2015, and The Iowa Review (runner up, The 2013 Iowa Review Award for Fiction), among others. Her story “Gibbous” won the Eric Hoffer Award for Short Prose and her story “The Plan” won Sequestrum’s 2016 New Writer Award and will appear in their summer 2017 issue. She earned her MFA at Pacific University and is currently working on a coming-of-age memoir. More about her and links to her work at http://www.ronitfeinglassplank.com

 

§ 22 Responses to Three Reasons I Could Stop Writing Memoir But Won’t

  • This is uplifting, but most of all true. However, it’s fiction that I have problems with, my own story I’m only too glad to tell (only by blogging, for now). From my, and your, and everybody’s, direction only one person is walking and has resources to tell the whole story.

  • Elizabeth Losa says:

    This sounds spot on to me.

  • hrreimer says:

    This is so relieving to read. There is such a stigma around memoir writing, I’m almost ashamed to tell people when they ask what kind of writing I do. Of course, not all I do is memoir writing, but when it is.. I always get the response, “Oh so you mean, like, just a diary.” Anyway, thank you, thank you, thank you for this post!

  • […] Source: Three Reasons I Could Stop Writing Memoir But Won’t […]

  • I wrote a memoir, but during the rewrite process changed enough for it to be technically an “autobiographical fiction.” It is now being professionally edited to make it more so and to clean it up. I’m happy with this because mine happened to be very painful. I wrote it in 2010…so that tells you something. I didn’t want to look at it until I went to a writer’s conference, pitched my recent fiction and when she asked “do you have something else” I pitched the painful story. Well, she wants to see that one. Soooo….you never know what people will like, especially agents at Writer’s conferences. 🙂

  • joanzumwalt says:

    Reblogged this on A Writing Life and commented:
    My initial reluctance to writing my memoir are reflected by Ronit. I’d read too many whiny “poor me” illness or abuse-focused memoirs. I decided to focus as much as possible on the positive and relive the best parts.

  • Reblogged this on Write Through It and commented:
    Here’s an eloquent example of “write what you need to write” (part of a truth I stole from Alice Walker). Your writing will tell you what you need to know, but you have to be willing to listen, and brave enough to follow.

  • I was part of the people who consider memoirs a form of navel-grazing. Until I read Mary Karr and Jeannette Lars. It is indeed hard to dig inside us to offer a slice of life that can echo other people’s experiences or simply tell of one human life. I still struggle with the exercise and I know that the reason is my own fear to dig inside me.
    Best to you with your memoir, Ronit.

  • Reblogged this on arleen williams and commented:
    A terrific piece fromRonit Feinglass Plank on memoir, what it is, what it is not, and why we write it.

  • Sue J says:

    Reblogged this on The Accidental Writer and commented:
    Timely read, given that I have recently put my third-draft-in-progress memoir on the side (yet again). Deeper still I need to go. There is no end to the layers I’m undoing with each draft . . . that alone is a tremendous challenge. But by far, the bigger challenge is believing in myself, in my need to write this story, and in my rightful place among other memoir writers who attempt the same.

  • “My memoir isn’t as painful as others”–I have struggled with this since beginning my story the last quarter of my MFA. On professor wanted that painful story she knew I had deep inside. I did not want to tell it. I choose a more thoughtful story, but one I need to tell immediately of my father’s death during my first semester. I agree with you, we don’t need to out-
    pain each other, we just need to puzzle ourselves out. Thank you for this post.

    • We don’t need to out-pain each other is very well stated. I remember thinking the same of my poetry growing up, thinking it needed to be sad to be “deep” or any good. I look back on the silliness of youth now. Life if full of variation and the memoir genre should reflect that.

  • Lani says:

    I’m working on my second memoir and I still cringe when I tell other people what I write about. It does seem horribly vain, doesn’t it? But I am reminded that everything begins with a story, much of fiction is nonfiction in wolf’s clothing anyway. And yes, it takes guts to vulnerable and the ironic part of memoir is – the story becomes less about you and more about the reader.

  • lynnefisher says:

    I have a specific memoir on my ‘to write’ list and have enjoyed what is termed ‘life writing’ pieces on a writing course I did. The main thing appears to be about going into common universal human feelings, problems, experiences and themes, so the reader can relate. Also enjoyable to be creative with the writing using fiction techniques and the blurry boundaries between truth and memory, real life and fiction. I’m all for it.

  • This was such a good read. I considered just copying and pasting all of my favorite parts into the comments so that you’d know! But there turned out to be so many. You’ve eloquently delineated what so many feel and think, and then you even more skillfully explain the reasons why the reasons why not are null. Thanks for the pleasure of this reading.

  • Mary Lou says:

    I’m glad I’ve persisted in writing my story. This post is right on! I’m thinking of attempting to convert my memoir into a fiction piece also.
    http://www.meinthemiddlewrites.com

  • Memoir, whether you make it big or it never sees the light of day past your personal drive or blog at best, is important. It’s how I’ve worked through life, death, and everything in between (severe anxiety). Thanks for sharing.

  • Perfect, I needed this. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Three Reasons I Could Stop Writing Memoir But Won’t at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

meta

%d bloggers like this: