Three Reasons I Could Stop Writing Memoir But Won’t
March 15, 2017 § 22 Comments
By 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 Review, Salon, Best 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