Not a Memoir But a Mystery

March 9, 2021 § 7 Comments

One common challenge for first-time memoirists is the manuscript that reads like a case file: scene after scene shows the main antagonist as an out-and-out villain; the protagonist’s responses are all appropriate and justified, and the whole story is summed up with how bravely the narrator strode forth into the light.

These memoirs don’t work.

They may be well-written, even delightful at the sentence level. But in terms of the dramatic arc, there’s no mystery, nothing to draw the reader. We know whodunit from the very beginning, and the course of the book is watching them do it over and over again.

Often, the writer is unconscious that they’ve laid out facts in a row and slanted them towards their own hurt feelings. As an adult reflecting back, they have clarity. What happened to them was wrong. They need to express that on the page.

But if the situation was so wrong, why did the rest of the family go along with it? Why didn’t anyone arrest the priest, or kick the foster parents out of the system, or hospitalize the addicted child, or incarcerate the domestic abuser? For that matter, why did the villain of the memoir continue their behavior? Few people are truly “evil,” and fewer still wake up in the morning and think, “Better get going! I’ve got some oppressing to do today!” Somehow, the situation looked OK—or OK enough to ignore—from the outside. Maybe it even looked OK to the memoirist when they lived that trauma the first time through. Maybe it was thoroughly concealed, and that disguise is itself worth exploring.

Our stories are more powerful and more compelling when we write with the voice of innocence. Showing the actions that happened and allowing the reader to be judge and jury. Showing our own adult character’s faults. Showing our own child character’s situation, and how they perceived it at the time. Many of us have had the experience of realizing in adulthood, “Hey, nobody else’s family acted like that.” By showing your own acceptance of your family’s normal, rather than pointing up how strange or abusive or traumatic it was, you allow the reader to inhabit that moment of shock, too. Present the facts, as truly as you can determine, and let the reader decide what they add up to.

Tara Westover explains, in her notes for Educated, that she has included footnotes reflecting other family members’ memories when they differ from hers, because

We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell. This is especially true in families. …Nothing has revealed that truth to me more than writing this memoir—trying to pin down the people I love on paper, to capture the whole meaning of them in a few words, which is of course impossible. This is the best I can do: to tell that other story next to the one I remember.

How can you include in your writing more truth than you possess?

  • If it’s possible to do without hurting yourself, seek out the other characters of your story and ask them why they did what they did. Think of yourself as an investigative journalist, one who’s pretty sure what the final cut of the documentary is going to look like, but needs to make an honest effort to get the other side of the story.
  • After you’re finished with a second or third draft, consider sending relevant chapters to the people you depict on the page. If they aren’t approachable, perhaps someone close to them could take a look. Don’t ask if they like it. Ask, “Where does your memory differ from mine? What have I missed in this event? What details do you remember?”
  • Whether or not it’s possible to communicate with your antagonists, consider deeply why they may have done what they did. Villains have their own version of the story—one in which they are the hero. A man who’s spent his life building an empire is devastated when his son refuses to inherit. But the story is told from Luke Skywalker’s side, so Darth Vader is a villain and not a deeply unhappy father.

See if you can allow those who hurt you some small grace, and show on the page why they thought they were right, or why they couldn’t overcome their wrongs. If you can summon up compassion (and you’re not obligated to!) for your antagonists, you may well be able to write a deeper and more interesting book. It’s deeply challenging to set aside our own legitimate grievances and honestly open our minds to the possibility of another point of view, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt and reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why.

______________________
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching how to navigate the story of your own villains in a webinar this Wednesday: Writing Memoir Without Fear: Avoiding Legal Issues, Trauma and Your Mom’s Hurt Feelings. Register here.

§ 7 Responses to Not a Memoir But a Mystery

  • Thank you, Allison. These are all such valuable reminders and suggestions about how to put truth on the page.

    I might add that when a memoirist makes children or other powerless people the villains of their story, there will be readers who identify with the difficulties, but ultimately: who is the parent/the one with power? Why exclusively blame powerless people for a situation they did not create? Maybe those less powerful are to blame, but asking how they became those people/found themselves in that position might be an aspect of the story that could be explored.

    That might be true even of powerful antagonists—how did they get there? One of the great gifts of memoir is revealing situations that other face and must address in life.

  • Lynette Benton says:

    I agree with the essay and with the response from janpriddyoregon above.

  • Mark Ford says:

    Great and sorely needed advice. I almost stopped reading Brevity because so many of its writers make this mistake. Unless you are the child of a celebrity, no one is really interested in hearing about your life it it is nothing more than your view of how badly you’ve been treated.

  • kperrymn says:

    This summarizes well the challenges of writing about any of the people in your memoir–but especially about antagonists. You know them so well, but you need to discover who they are as you would if you were a fiction writer. If they follow your advice, memoirists will save themselves a lot of time–and they’ll write better books!

  • rachaelhanel says:

    Nothing is more flat than one-sided characters, whether in a book, a TV show, or a movie. Thanks for this good reminder!

  • Thank you Alison for this write-up. The challenge is even greater when the antagonist(s) have died. Looking at old photos of the antagonists and imagining what they were thinking or had been through up to that point might be helpful to round out another point of view.

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