Some of our most memorable and beloved books have been memoirs. Most times, regular folk who’ve found themselves in remarkable circumstances. Or, they happen to have celebrity status and no matter the life they’ve led, we are entranced and want to know more. What is it about memoirs that captures our hearts and attention?
To answer these questions, and to get many of us started on our memoir, Omega in Rhinebeck is offering a Memoir Writing Weekend, August 8 – 10, 2014. Workshop presenters include Cheryl Stayed (Wild); Malachy McCourt (A Monk Swimming); Alphie McCourt (A Long Stone’s Throw); Frances Lefkowitz (To Have Not); and Fred Poole (Authentic Writing: A Memoir on Creating Memoir).
We caught up with author, blogger and Memoir Writing Workshop leader, Marta Szabo to discuss the memoir writing practice.
What attracts you to the memoir?
When I first determined that I wanted to be a writer – as a teenager in the seventies – I assumed I’d be writing fiction – novels, maybe poetry. Memoir as it exists now did not exist then. But I wanted to become a writer because when I read a good novel I could feel the author’s presence. I knew that she was presenting her deepest thoughts and feelings through her characters. And so, for me, a good novel, in a way, was what memoir is today.
In today’s culture we can be more open. We don’t have to mask our stories in fiction. And I find this thrilling. I have little interest in current fiction. I find that writing memoir is where the stakes are highest. I want to know the author, and as a writer I want the reader to know me.
Every writer’s long, long road to fulfilling this intention is very different. It’s a road you have to go alone. You have to bushwhack your own way. My bushwhacking led me to memoir and it is here that I found what I love most – people telling their truest, sometimes very subtle stories in their truest strongest most individual voices. This is where my own writing has flourished, and what I want to support in others.
Why do you teach memoir writing?
Everyone has an absurdly interesting life – whether they have traveled the world by donkey or not. I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of people and heard them describe their daily lives as well as the huge landmarks of their lives and when they are writing directly and honestly it is always riveting. And it is not because they are necessarily experienced writers.
That leads me to the next question. Do you need to be a “WRITER” to write a memoir?
Anyone who has the courage to sit down and look at the memories that have survived from their own lifetime and wants to recreate those memories in words so that others can see what they carry inside can do so. You do not have to be a “writer.” If you can think, if you can speak, you can write. It does take guts, but that is all. Sometimes, being skilled and fluent at writing can even make it more difficult to access true stories and feelings. One can get so hung up on whether the sentence sounds good enough that one loses touch with the nonverbal part of writing, the gushing forth of feeling and memory.
It is this ability to tune in and trust one’s inner language, to go with the images that present themselves when it is time to write that makes for great art, great writing. It’s a muscle that strengthens over time and one that can always get stronger!
I would imagine that senior citizens would be a great group to get memoir writing.
Some people say they don’t remember enough to write memoir. This is 100% never true. Once you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard you will be astounded how much you have retained. The writing of it reveals it. So if you want to find out what happened to you, start writing about it. Creating writing is always a matter of discovery, not simply writing down what you have already pinned down in your own mind.
It is scary to write. Without vulnerability there can be no decent writing. And so I, and pretty much everyone I have ever written with or known, comes up with really good excuses not to write. One of the classics is, “I can’t write about my life because everyone is still alive. I have to wait until they are all dead.”
This is a fallacy. I encourage everyone to write their stories no matter who gets thrown under the bus. I think it is imperative to their own health and well-being that people do this writing without holding back, without feeling they have to protect anyone. Get that writing done!
What can you say about actually getting a memoir published?
Once it is done we can talk about the next step. There is a long, long distance between writing a very revealing story about, say, one’s mother, and having that story on the New York Times bestseller list, read by millions of people. If you want to publish – after you have written the story as fully and openly as you can – you can find ways to mask identities – but all of that is so far down the road. Don’t let the fear of publicity stop you from writing in the privacy of your own home or writing group.
Don’t think about publishing. Get your writing done first. Ultimately, this is where much of the fulfillment and satisfaction of writing lies.