You can be the hero of your own memoir. Maybe you already are.
Joseph Campbell, and other analysts of the hero’s journey, tell us that the hero’s job is to accept a quest, go on a journey, and return with something of value to his or her community.
Often, the hero resists the call to action initially. And often, some taboo is broken in the process.
Bonus points, by the way, if you grew up with one or more substitute parents: adoptive parents, step parents, foster parents. Being raised in a single parent home counts too.
All the best heroes in all of our stories share the substitute parent trope. Think Moses, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, Superman, Batman and Robin and Batgirl, Jane Eyre, and Frodo. All the Marvel characters I can think of. All the young characters in The Force Awakens. And then there’s Harry Potter.
By “best” I don’t mean “nicest.” Think Oedipus, Heathcliff, Darth Vader, Hellboy, Dexter, Loki.
Maybe this trope exists because it’s easier to break taboos, to rebel against a script written by your substitute parents, than it is to break away from a script written by your true and loving parents. And rebellion makes for such an interesting story.
But you don’t need to have substitute parents to be the hero of your own memoir. All you need is a journey and a few monsters to overcome, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or Ulysses in The Odyssey.
The hero’s journey can be external or internal. The most interesting are perhaps both internal and external.
Some recent memoirs that align with the heroic journey archetype are Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.
Similarly, the monsters or obstacles can be internal or external. The late Caroline Knapp’s memoir of recovery from alcoholism, Drinking: A Love Story, is an eloquent inner journey about dealing with internal monsters.
At the end of the heroic journey, the hero comes home — but that can be an internal home. Or it can be a new home if the original home has been blown up, or the story doesn’t take the hero back to his or her original home for another reason.
If you’re looking for a pattern of organization for your memoir, studying the structure of the heroic archetype through careful attention to one or more of your favorite heroic tales might be a fruitful exercise. And, of course, you can Google “Heroic archetype” for much more information.
Meanwhile, here are some writing prompts to help you identify elements of your own heroic memoir:
What forces or ideas did you rebel against?
What internal or external journeys are part of your story?
What thresholds did you cross to begin the journey?
What monsters did you face?
What barriers did you overcome?
Who were your mentors, guides, or allies?
What did home look like when you completed your journey?
Memoirists sometimes worry about being sued for libel or slander or defamation.
Here’s the good news: you can’t be sued for what you’ve written until you make your work public. You can’t be sued for writing you keep in your notebook or on your laptop. And writing and publishing are two very separate enterprises.
Don’t even think about being sued while writing and revising. Wipe those thoughts from your mind.
Remember that no one sees what you are writing until you take the next step: publication in print or other media, or in a public reading. And this step doesn’t happen by accident or by itself. It comes after the writing, sometimes long after.
So that’s the simple answer to how to write a memoir if you’re worried about being sued: by recognizing that writing and publishing are separate. You can write about love and terror and tenderness and violence. You can blame people, and write bad things about them. No one is seeing it while you’re writing it. Write your best. Don’t worry.
What makes a piece of writing likely to be the subject of a lawsuit for libel or slander or defamation? Wait a moment while I put my law school hat on.
Notice that all three require that the statement be false. If I call someone a murderer in an essay, and the person has been convicted of murder, it doesn’t matter how pissed off he is that I’ve written that about him. He is out of luck because I told the truth.
“Can be brought” is in italics because bringing a lawsuit is not easy to do. Most people want or need to hire lawyers for that. And, believe it or not, lawyers don’t take any case that comes their way; the case has to be both winnable and worth significant dollars, or the client has to pay up front.
Some jurisdictions also require that the false statement was made with an intent to cause harm. In all jurisdictions, harm as a result of the false statement is required for damages to be awarded.
“Harm” is usually monetary harm. Here’s an example: I lie and call Mr. X a thief in my memoir, and he loses his job because of it. As a result of my false statement, he suffered the harm of losing his paychecks, and maybe future paychecks if my memoir is so widely published and read that everyone believes it.
So let’s say I self-publish a memoir and sell 200 copies. In the memoir, I falsely state that my neighbor, Ms. X, poured kerosene on my vegetable garden. Ms. X works as a psychologist. She sues me for libel, claiming that my memoir has ruined her counseling practice.
But my memoir only sold 200 copies, and most of those copies were purchased in another state. Ms. X is not licensed to practice in the other state. The harm she suffered is minimal. The judge finds in her favor, awards her $100 in damages, and orders me to withdraw my memoir from further publication until I delete any references to Ms. X.
On the other hand, if I sold 10,000 copies in my home state and Ms. X owned a landscaping business that went out of business as a result of bad publicity from my book, then her damages would be higher. She might even be able to convince a lawyer to take her case.
And remember, lawyers don’t take on cases that aren’t worth money unless the clients want to pay them a substantial retainer based on a high hourly rate.
So don’t worry about being sued if you are telling the truth. Truth is an absolute defense to these sorts of cases.
Once you feel your memoir is finished, then think about these two questions:
Does your work have a whiny or bitter tone?
Have you told the truth?
Tone is not always evident to the writer. Double-check your tone by asking a friend or writing partner to read with an eye for whining and bitterness. Both tones will dilute — or even destroy — any wisdom or beauty or excitement or analysis you want to share. Also, the market for whiny and bitter writing is teensy-weensy.
If you want to pre-empt whining and bitterness, consider putting some distance (spatial or chronological) between yourself and the events of your story or poem. Distance coats a story with compassion, revealing how external events shape mistakes or even cruelties. Distance makes it possible to see the complexity of events. Distance is a ladder that lets you get down from a high horse or climb up from a slough of self-blame. It’s a lens that lets you see all the love you might have missed.
What about telling the truth? Like George Orwell, I believe in an objective truth when it it comes to facts. However, we all remember events in slightly different ways from others. Don’t worry if your memory doesn’t exactly jive with your sister’s about some event from your childhood. But if memories differ significantly, that might be interesting enough to include in your piece.
What about the kind of truth that doesn’t rely on facts, sometimes called emotional truth? If it’s not about facts, it’s not slanderous. Writers and critics disagree about the nature of emotional truth. For me as a reader, it happens when I’m so enveloped in the sensory details of a real or imagined character’s joys and sorrows, I empathize with the character. For me as a writer, it happens when I remember to invest my essays and poems with those sensory details, and with plenty of love.
Writers are always trying to get at truth. When we succeed, it’s magic. When we fail, it’s a lesson. And since writing demands learning, those failures are lessons we need.
Don’t let worrying about being sued get in your way while you’re writing. But once you’re ready to send your work out for publication, check your tone and your facts, and aim for truth.
Memoir is story, it just happens to be a story that’s true. And one thing that’s easy to forget when writing memoir is that your readers want to get to know you. And to them, you’re a character.
Just as in real life, that getting-to-know you happens gradually, through what you wear, where you hang out, what you say, where you work, who your friends and family are.
In any story, we expect main characters to grow and change. Readers want to know who you are when the story begins, who you become when the story’s conflicts arise, and who you are when the story ends.
Readers want to know who you are when the story begins, who you become when the story’s conflicts arise, and who you are when the story ends.
Currently, I’m reading Chuck Wendig’s craft book Damn Fine Story. It’s stuffed with clear and practical advice for writing stories that sweep readers off their feet and glue them into the comfy chair, or bed, or where ever the reader prefers to read.
Wendig is primarily a novelist and screenplay writer. So far, I haven’t seen him mention memoir, but IMHO, advice about writing stories (and that’s his focus) apply to memoir as well as fiction. I anticipate quoting from him often in this series about writing memoir.
Anyways, here are some points he makes about character development:
Characters are their problems.For example, in my adoption reunion story, my problem is that I don’t know where I came from.
Characters face internal and external complications. We’re talking about conflicts. In my story, my internal resistance to dependence on others was further complicated by my birth family’s external expectation that I would depend on them for love.
Characters create a story by interrupting the baseline, the status quo.Every story begins with a static situation and goes from there. Even if the original static situation is chaotic, it’s still the baseline from which the story begins. No interruption in the baseline = no story.
The best characters end a story changed. And isn’t that what memoir is about? How we, the writers, have been changed by a particular series of events?
So how do you turn yourself into a character? One way is to imagine readers are meeting you for the first time. Show them a picture (in words) of the person you are at the beginning of your story, and use plenty of concrete, sensory details. Here’s a current paragraph from my memoir draft that tries to do that work:
To ease my anxiety at the prospect of meeting my family for the first time, I’d spent the twenty-two-hour train ride from Boston to Savannah reviewing case files from my law practice. Born in the South, but adopted into a family from the North, I spent my childhood feeling as if I were wearing a flour sack when everyone around me was in silk. My adoptive father was fond of calling me an “enigma,” a word I had to look up the first time he said it, when I was a twelve-year-old drug user toting around a worn copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The nineteenth-century novels a librarian had recommended to me did as much for my sense of well-being as the Librium my pediatrician prescribed when I rebelled against my parents, and the codeine-heavy cough syrup I started drinking directly from the bottle at age nine.
The bold-faced words are, of course, those sensory details. The reader will know I’m a lawyer, I’m willing to take a long train ride, and as a twelve-year-old child, I was a bookworm and a drug user. But, I notice, there’s nothing in this paragraph that says what I look like.
Straight physical descriptions (I was short, plump, and had dark hair) can sound forced, or boring, or both. Some writers think that physical descriptions are unnecessary for main characters because readers like to visualize them on their own.
But if I tie a physical description of myself to an action or emotion, that might work. Let’s see.
Anxious at the prospect of meeting my family for the first time, I’d twisted a section of my dark brown hair around one finger until it formed a spiral curl. To distract myself, I spent much of the twenty-two-hour train ride from Boston to Savannah reviewing case files from my law practice. Balancing a folder on my ample lap, I paged through it with my skinny little chicken fingers.
Better? Maybe so. Let me know if you feel so inclined. Here’s an example from a better writer, Marilynne Robinson, from her novel Housekeeping.
… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.
Notice how each characteristic is paired with a verb and given an action.
Ways other than action to describe yourself as a character are:
Let other characters describe you. “Her friend turned to me and said ‘Your sister says you’re bizarre, but your brother-in-law says you’re merely eccentric.’”
Describe objects near and dear to yourself. “I held my teddy bear, which I’d received on my first birthday.”
After my first memoir was published as a Kindle Single, I reflected a bit about how I wrote it. Originally, that memoir was about my time as a teenage runaway and abuse survivor plus my time as a trial attorney representing a woman who’d survived being shot in the head. First, it was chronological; later, it was braided, alternating between deep past and more recent past.
An Amazon editor saw an essay I’d published in Guernica about my birth family. She asked me if I had anything longer. I sent her the teenage runaway/shooting manuscript. She felt the teenage runaway story was more dramatic than the shot-in-the-head story. Go figure.
She encouraged me to send her a draft of only that story. So, of course, I did.
It had taken me about five years to write that memoir. While that manuscript moved through the editing and publication process, I started imagining a quicker process for writing a full-length memoir about reuniting with my very colorful family. Maybe, I thought, it would be faster to do it in two steps.
First, write individual essays, get them published, and second, slap them together into a book-length memoir. An added benefit of this method was getting pieces of the memoir out in the world right away. Agents and editors like to bet on known quantities — writers who’ve already been published — and I wanted this next memoir published, too.
I was successful with step one; a dozen of those essays have been published in venues including The Rumpus, Narratively, and Sycamore Review. The very first one to be published found a home three years ago on Medium in the original incarnation of Human Parts.
But uh-oh. Guess what? It’s been way harder than I thought it would be to mash those essays together into a coherent story. What’s missing is continuity, the glue that holds a story together. But more importantly, in writing those essays, I hadn’t even begun to think about stuff like narrative arc and character development and overarching themes in a book-length story.
If that sounds like a fiction writer’s talk, well, I admit it is. Great memoirs, those that grab a reader and won’t let go, are written like great fiction. IMHO, of course. They focus on story.
Call me a traditionalist: I like a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’ve read some wonderful essay collections, like Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, that have more than a hint of memoir about them. But I could pick that book up, and put it down, and pick it up again months later.
For me, the most enjoyable reading experiences are the ones that immerse me in a different world with a conflict that begins on page one, gets complicated as I fly through the pages, and comes to a satisfying (or maybe shocking) conclusion near the end.
Now, I’ve got just over 75,000 words of that second memoir written, and I’ve taken a vow to complete the first draft of the whole shooting match by the end of this May. As part of that goal, I plan to blog here every day about some element of memoir craft — especially those elements I need to master.
For me, writing a memoir step by step, one essay at a time, may not have been the time-saver I hoped for. But for other writers, the process has worked quite well, and it might work for you.
We writers are all different, but all writers benefit from knowing their options.
If you’re interested in a thorough discussion of memoir development options and a detailed, diverse analyses of distinctions between essay and memoir and story, I recommend Colin Hosten’s article that includes interviews with some of the top writers and editors in the field.
Sapphics, as you might guess, are named for the ancient Greek poet Sappho. The form follows a strict metrical pattern that does not come naturally to me. Former poet laureate Kay Ryan once said at a reading. “I am a slave to rhyme.” Well, I am a slave to the iamb, and the Sapphic meter seems weird.
But it seemed like the perfect form for a particular poem.
Sapphics are written in four-line stanzas. The contemporary Sapphic metrical pattern for poets who write in English sounds like this:
DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da
DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da
DUM da DUM da DUM da da DUM da DUM da
DUM da da DUM da
In contrast, the more common iambic pattern goes like this:
da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.
Why did I choose to write in an ancient Greek Sapphic form? It started with undergoing interferon treatment for hepatitis C. (Coincidentally the word “hepatitis” comes from the Greek.) The treatment gave me many nasty side effects, but the scariest one was that it wiped out the poetry part of my brain for a year.
Happily, a breakthrough came when I visited The Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida. This museum, in the lavish former home of the circus magnate, has a Renaissance-style sculpture garden with a number of colossal statues, including a replica of Michelangelo’s David.
But the colossal that struck me like a thunderbolt was a replica of the Rape of Proserpina (a/k/a Persephone) by the Italian sculptor Bernini. It depicts Pluto (a/k/a Hades), the god of the underworld, abducting the virgin Proserpina.
Looking up at the colossal statue, I was astonished to see that a paper wasp had made a nest in Proserpina’s crotch. A metaphor occurred to me — the first that had popped into my head in a year. But more amazingly, when I got home and started researching wasps, I learned that their Latin name is hymenoptera — after “hymen,” the tissue that is broken when a woman loses her virginity.
What a gift that was. The poem was originally published in the online journal Per Contra.
The Wasp Garden
A Sapphic verse on a copy of The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini at the
Ringling Museum, Sarasota, Florida
“Rape of Proserpine,” the colossus’s sign reads,
“Stone Variant,” on the theme “young girl some
God of Hell abducted became a queen.” Her
Rape is looming, yet
Here, she’s held aloft, as if ready to fly, with
Pluto’s arms her launch. See where haughty paper
Wasps, the Hymenoptera, built their nesting
Site between her not-
Yet-queen-thighs, a fortress of humming rapture,
Stingers sharpened, ready to shield them both from
Brutal injuries and regrets, to put an
End to myths like these.
It’s ironic that poets, who are so often iconoclasts, have been and continue to be drawn to the limits imposed by form.
Some poets say those limits free them from their mind’s repetitive patterns. I’m in that camp. For example, writing in form forces my brain away from the patterns it wants to follow. It forces me to find and choose words I might not otherwise use. Those two things alone will force me to come up with new ideas.
So instead of form and order being the enemy of the fresh and the new, the order imposed by form can actually push the brain out of its ruts into something entirely new.
The highly structured villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form is made up of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The first and third lines of the opening tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; then in the final stanza, the refrain serves as the poem’s two concluding lines. Using capitals for the refrains and lowercase letters for the rhymes, the form could be expressed as: A1 b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 / a b A2 / a b A1 A2.
Oy vey. And yet, the interlocking nature of the villanelle is so like the obsessions we return to over and over again in our lives. Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art” is perhaps the best example of how the form can illuminate — and acknowledge — obsession.
The villanelle below is an attempt to illuminate one or two of my obsessions. When performing it at a reading, I always introduce it as a gardening poem. But of course there’s another level. “Datura” was originally published in The Hypertexts, and also appears in my book, Back East.
I choose datura from the racks of seed
And nurture them with care, although they’ll grow
Up poisonous and beautiful. I need
Their syrup-scented trumpet-blooms. Their weed-
Like vigor cures me of the winter, so
I choose datura. From the racks of seed
I choose some others, too — the hearts that bleed
In spring, the columbine, and these will grow
Not poisonous, just beautiful. These need
A simpler kind of care; such flowers breed
With ease. I need the razor’s edge, and so
I choose datura from the racks of seed.
Surprise — their family, Nightshade, Jimsonweed
And Belladonna visit me. I grow
Accustomed to poisonous beauty, need
Hypnotics causing death or merely greed
For sleep, for nature’s death-defying show.
I chose datura from the racks of seed, As poisonous and beautiful as need.
The most famous word-playing poet may be Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame. His real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodson, and he was also a mathematician. Here are some lines from his poem “Jabberwocky”:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
Play is creative; wordplay is no exception. In “Jabberwocky,” the nonsensical words somehow make a certain sense to our brains, perhaps because they are inserted into traditional syntax. We, the readers, create meaning out of nonsense. For example, we may make “slithy” into an adjective that describes the noun “toves.”
Erasure poems happen when poets play with a given text, erasing parts of the text to reveal and create a poem. One contemporary practitioner of erasure and other types of found poetry is E Kristin Anderson, who’s done some remarkable work with novels written by Stephen King.
The poem below, originally published in Hermeneutic Chaos(sadly, this beautiful journal is on hiatus), started out as a way of playing around with two different meanings of a Latin word.
In ancient Latin, the word for bone — os —
was spelled the same as os, the word for mouth.
Once there was a mouth that shrank with age
to a pocket the size of a pea, with no more room
for food, or drink, or teeth, or even a tongue.
It grew smaller and smaller until it became
completely untethered: a small hole
floating in the night sky,
through which only bones spoke,
but only the bones of stars.
One form for expressing grief in poetry is the elegy. It started in the Classical period of Western history as a form using a metrical pattern called elegiac couplets: the first of two lines in dactylic hexameter and the second line in dactylic pentameter. The subject, originally, was not necessarily grief. To see an example, check out elegiac couplets in English by John Donne .
Today, poets write poems they call elegies that do not follow any formal pattern. Formalists, of course, might say those poems are not elegies at all.
In deep grief, the arc of writing or reading a poem can be a way to come up for air. That is what I was looking for in this poem, originally published in Eclectica magazine.
Elegy for Christina
When you were seven, I took you out too far
into Ogeechee’s deep, seducing current
and swimming back, your bird-claw fingers choked
my neck. I stooped to prayer: please, God, no stupid
accident. We reached the riverbank. I laughed
as if there’d been no danger, so you could
keep on swimming. For years, you kept to the shoreline,
and grew to be the girl we thought would make
it, the one whose gentleness
we praised, the one whose un-
polluted urine her sisters brought
to their probation officers, the one
we thought immune from stupid accidents.
Some days, grief keeps me looking inward,
even when I hear the cranes’ migration,
and I dive back twenty years to swim the river
and hold you in the current, to stop
your transformation into a woman
overdosing, choking on her vomit.
It’s only now I can admit
we reached the riverbank so many years ago
as easily as windblown chaff
because we were the chaff.
The husk you left behind has burned and sent its smoke
into the atmosphere. Trumpets call me to look up.
I don’t expect the angels. Sandhill cranes
arrow over pine barrens toward the open prairie, lifted
on prevailing winds, following the one way clear to them.