Memoirists, Let's Incubate

Perhaps you’ve had this experience: a well-meaning friend or relative or total stranger inquires what you’ve been up to lately, and you—brave, honest soul that you are—tell him or her that you’re writing a memoir. “Oh,” your companion says, “I’m going to do that someday, too! My life has been such a story. I just need the time to write it down.”

Perhaps, like many of us, you once were that person. And after all, having lived the relevant portions of your life, shouldn’t you know how to write it down? Wouldn’t you just need to type what happened?

But then you faced the blank page. You typed. You typed for a long time, putting things down in order. And then you saw what came out.

What came out was true. It was a record of life. But perhaps you (brave, honest soul that you are) recognized that somewhere, something had gone wrong. What you lived was colorful, attention-grabbing, vivid, emotional, real. But what came out on the page? What came out on the page was flat.

What’s the problem in this scenario? The problem is, you wrote what happened.

I am not saying that the problem is that you wrote the facts. Facts are vital. Truth is vital. Truth is the contract you make with a reader when you call something memoir instead of fiction. But even sticking with the facts, as a writer of literary memoir you must overcome what might be called the tyranny of what happened. Because what happened? It just happened. It had events, not themes. It had people, not characters. It was life. It wasn’t a story.

Story is what the literary memoir is made of. And turning life into story, with all the requirements stories have, the requirements that allow them to hold the attention of readers, is hard work. It is work that is far harder than a breezy avowal of typing, work that requires drafting and redrafting and thinking and importantly, most importantly, both inhabiting and stepping outside yourself.

That demanding process is why we began GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator program in 2013. And why I’m happy to say that we’re currently accepting applications for the second year of the program.

The word “incubator” has turned out to be just right for a group of memoirists coming together to support, inspire, and learn from each other—and most of all, write. Just as the writers hard at work in the Novel Incubator program are incubating their imaginations, the students in the Memoir Incubator have worked hard at incubating the meaning of their memoirs, pushing each other into deeper, braver explorations and better writing. They’ve pushed beyond just what they each want to say in their stories, and arrived at the literary kind of truth: why a reader will care. They’ve done the hard work of turning themselves into characters on the page, sharpening their voices as narrators, and turning their lives into story.

And along the way, they’ve become each others’ best readers, a group of combination cheerleaders and critics who are supportive in the best way possible, the way that asks and allows each writer to do the best work she can.

And most of all, they’ve written—more words, I think, than they knew they could. No longer is any of them the one in the café still saying “Someday, someday.” Instead, they are writing, and saying, “Now.” Many of them have already begun to unleash those words on the world, publishing excerpts, meeting with agents, and applying for writers’ residencies. And through it all, they keep writing—because they have incubated their stories, and because they now know what book they are each writing. That has been the single most gratifying part of the experience for me as the instructor: that our writers are all writing.

It is almost time for us to say goodbye to this group of Incubees, almost time to declare them hatched with the books they now deeply know they are writing and bring the first year of the program to its close. It’s time to choose another group of memoirists and begin again, incubating a new group of lives into a new group of stories.

If you’re ready to finally get down to work on your own manuscript—if you’re ready, too, to stop saying “someday” and start saying “now”—and if you’re ready to become part of a group of committed, passionate, wise writers working together, come join us. Learn more about the program here.

Applications will be accepted until 5 pm, Tuesday, March 15th.

Memoirists, let’s incubate.

About the Author See other articles by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich
by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich



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