Your Memoir Is Too Much About You
by Ethan Gilsdorf
[Adapted from a talk given at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, Chicago, February, 2012]
I teach classes at Grub Street in narrative nonfiction-slash-creative nonfiction --- including the essay, personal essay, memoir, column/commentary, op-ed, blog, feature story, travel narrative, nature writing, book-length memoir and book-length general narrative nonfiction. A problem I've encountered teaching each of these sub-genres of nonfiction -- personal essay and memoir in particular -- is that the writing often ends up being too much about the student's experience.
To much "me."
I know what you're thinking, "Hey, wait a second, Ethan. It's memoir and personal essay. The whole point IS for the writing to be all about me. I, my, mine, etc. Why else would it be called personal essay? It's a memoir, you idiot. Are you insane?"
Now, I'm not against the well-crafted personal essay or harrowing or entertaining memoir. Many writers write these pieces with aplomb and verve and skill. The issue I'm trying to help the student writer with is this: The experience of that "me" or "I" in the essay often isn't all that interesting. What that "me" or "I" remembers isn't that compelling. What the writer chooses to write about can't carry the load of reader's interest throughout the work.
Some common problems I have observed:
People don't remember very well. Or what they remember isn't often the most interesting thing they choose write about.
Or, the way a piece is written isn't imaginative or lyrical --- or ruminative --- it's merely narrative. The writing rushes through the "then this happened, then this happened" of events, and doesn't slow down enough to explore feeling, thought, or nuance. The writing needs to ruminate, to explain, to make sense on the page of the lived experience.
Or, the writer fails to build a believable world in which that personal experience takes place. The writing becomes too much about the self and not enough about the self-living-in-time. To make their personal experience "universal," writers often sap all the specific, local and personal details from their prose. The writing isn't based in the concrete, and it doesn't evoke an era, the stuff of the lived experience: product names, songs, species, plants, rooms, objects, family names, stories, traditions. It doesn't evoke place and time and era and world.
Or, the writer's vision is too myopic. It sticks too closely to the lived life. It doesn't muse about the life NOT lived, which is as interesting as the life lived: regrets, possible parallel lives, bad choices, how life would have been different "if."
Or, weirdly, especially in memoir, I find that the writing can too much about the past. Of course, yes, it's memoir -- which comes from the French root of the word "memory." But when writers think "memoir," they understandably think only about what happened long ago. It can often be as or more interesting to write about what didn't happen in the deep past, but rather the recent past; and that recent past, or what is happening in the "present" of the narration -- a walk, a trip, a quest, an investigation -- even if it's totally manufactured as a writing prompt or act of stunt journalism, can be a great wall off of which to bounce the materials of one's past.
So if your memoir or personal essay is about your childhood, your home town, or your family, and your quest to make sense of or peace with the past, your family, or a turning point in life (and I would say this alone makes up 75 percent of the subject matter of most memoir) -- why restrict what you write about to what your mere mind can remember?
Call up your brother. Interview your high school English teacher to find out how you became the freak you are. Conduct some historical research into your small town. Visit the historical society. Walk the woods behind the house your grew up in that is now barely a woods at all, and take good notes. Craft a scene that shows you, in 2012, grappling with the dark matter of your past, and interweave these materials with the rich recreations of your own memory.
In conclusion -- and I've been hankering lately to write something that ended with the words, "in conclusion" -- there is other subject matter out there that is often more compelling to put into an essay or piece of narrative nonfiction or memoir than simply "me." So your essays includes the intersection of the "me" or "I" experience and this other element or elements.
I've come up with two exercises that might help solve these problems I've outlined above. One I call "Joan Didion and Bob Seger Meet in a Bar" (a prompt of my own design) and the other is called "Where I'm From" (which I've adapted from someone else).
1) "Joan Didion and Bob Seger Meet in a Bar"
Writers of nonfiction tend to write only about the actual details of their lives, and neglect the goldmine of regrets and "what if" musings that (to me, anyway) seem as "real" as real life. This exercise forces nonfiction writers to reflect about possible/probable outcomes in their lives, had they made different choices. The goal also is to get writers to include imaginary "what if" scenes and passages of musing about their choices and actions and get them to speculate on alternative outcomes in their lives.
2) Where I'm From
This exercise gets nonfiction writers to include specific concrete details from their lives into their writing: actual names, phrases, local information, family secrets and stories, period products, the world of their childhoods, etc. This exercise teaches the power of a simple list in creating a rhythm and lyric quality in prose. On its own, this exercise also makes a lovely, stand-alone self-portrait. If you remember Mad-Libs, then you'll get how this works.
Check these out and see if they can't help you break away from the "me" and populate your nonfiction with more depth, range and breadth.
A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf