How to write a memoir
There has lately been a rising backlash against the ubiquity of personal writing.
It leads me to believe it may be time to think methodically about what separates good confessional writing from bad confessional writing.
It is dangerously cartoonish to say all personal writing is bad, and to automatically attack every writer who dares to delve into his own experience, but there are a million different ways to write personally and some of them are undoubtedly better than others. Here, then, are some basic principles I have come to over the years as both a professor and a writer:
1. The writer should turn her fierce critical eye on herself. It is always satisfying to read a writer who sharply and deftly attacks the hypocrisies and delusions of the world around him, but we trust that writer more completely when he also attacks himself, when he does not hold himself to a different standard, or protect himself from scrutiny.
2. Personal writing should seem honest. The reader likes personal writing to feel "honest." (This does not mean that the memoir is "honest" - who knows how the writer really felt about something that happened 20 years ago, or yesterday. It just needs to feel honest.) The reader is as adept as Holden Caulfield in detecting phoniness, fakeness, posturing and is as allergic to them. If the reader senses the writer is lying even to himself, or using the essay as a piece of propaganda, a forwarding of his own personal mythology in too clumsy or transparent a way, she will react against it.
3. Personal writing should entertain the reader. Most readers don't care about the writer and are distracted instead by small things like their own lives, and so it is incumbent upon the writer to make them care or draw them in by being fascinating or funny or unusually observant.
The writer does not have to take on huge dramatic subjects to engage the reader's interest, though there is of course a natural interest in huge important subjects The subject, with apologies to hopeful suffering young writers, doesn't have to be inherently extreme.
4. In fact, even if your subject is extreme or shocking, it won't be interesting in any but the most prurient terms, unless it is written well, and surprisingly.
For instance, the novelist Darin Strauss' "Half a Life" is an excellent reflection on his experience of killing a girl in a car accident in high school. But it is excellent because it is controlled, because the details are as carefully selected, the pacing as carefully moderated as that of any novel. The reason the book is so good is that he manages to tell the reader something she doesn't know or can't imagine; he gets beyond the generic, the cliché, which a surprising number of published personal writers never do. There is one moment when the teen-age Darin, on the roadside after the accident, in shock, leans down on the ground, with his head in his hands, like an Olympic athlete overcome with emotion, to impress some pretty girls who happen to be standing there too. His inclusion of vivid, unsettling, surprising moments like this lifts the book to its higher plane of observation, its position as art rather than sheer confession.
5.The standards of craft in personal writing should not be lower than in fiction. There is no reason why something true should be sloppily or boringly written. Many writers seem to feel that they are "expressing themselves" if they just get their feelings down on the page, but expressing yourself is not enough.
- Washington Post