Five Reasons Why Memoirs (can) Suck by Larry Dunlap

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With several chapters finished, I began having second thoughts about my first attempt at writing a memoir and began looking for successful examples of real stories told from memory. As I began reading bestselling authors Cheryl Strayed, Anne Patchett, Lucy Greally, Diablo Cody, and Mary Karr, I came to understand what skills were needed to be successful in this specific form of literature. Memoir websites and online groups I investigated revealed many would-be writers with worthy ideas expressed in unreadable manuscripts. Discouraging, because real stories can be richer than fiction.

Memoir is defined here as a narrative form of creative non-fiction covering a certain period of time, based primarily on an author’s recollections. With one memoir published and another due soon, these are my top five reasons why I think so many memoirs often suck—and shouldn’t.

If you are writing memoir therapeutically, or a personal family history, other available articles and resources for these will be more useful. If your goal is to share your story with the public, compete for a spot on the New York Times Bestseller list, the requirements are stiff.

ALL I NEED TO KNOW IS IT HURTS

Many first-time memoirists, victim or witness to something so horrendous, so unique, believe everyone will be immediately drawn to the intensity of their experience. Memoir never works as a long wail of pain. No matter how big the hole the protagonist falls into, the memoir’s story is the struggle to climb out. A sufferer of disease, natural disaster, abuse, or another challenge, must eventually overcome, regain control, fail, or even expire in the process.

Writing memoir, as in any literary genre, requires craft and skills to make experiences relatable. They cannot be replaced by a bleeding page. Look for other writers, specifically memoirists, who say things the way you would like to. Read their work and examine their techniques.

WHY DO I HAVE TO HAVE A STORY?

Whether fiction or non-fiction, western civilization wires us to expect an implicit framework called ‘story’ when relating to another’s experiences. “Story originated as a method of bringing us together to share specific information that might be lifesaving,” says Lisa Cron, author of “Wired for Story.” Here’s what happened when I ate the yellow snow. Our brains subconsciously search for how your experience relates to us as the story draws us in. This reader expectation is known as the three-act story arc: a beginning where we learn what’s at stake and for who, plus some portion of the problem. A middle where storytelling deepens suspense, heightens danger, and builds character motivations. And a final act, leading to resolution.

You might think, real life is messy and unorganized and can’t follow a pre-determined story arc like fiction. While memoirists deal with facts as they recall them, they retain the right to relate, highlight, or de-emphasize events to reveal the story that illustrates underlying truths. If this arc of highs, lows, motivations, and outcomes, isn’t presented in your memoir, it will likely be un-publishable.

I CAN’T TELL THE REAL TRUTH WITHOUT HURTING MYSELF OR OTHERS

Memoir is revelatory by nature. A writer considering this genre should know and understand how the risks can be minimized but not avoided. Unless your goal is to blow somebody’s cover, your main concern is family and friends. I believe it’s only fair to explain your plan and attempt to get early releases for what you write, including photo reprint rights. However, U.S. law believes that people also have a right to their own story. Memoir is based on an author’s recollection of their truth, and sometimes that takes precedence over absolute accuracy. For instance, changing a name or deleting someone from your story is acceptable. As a professional, which you are when you write for publication, the less you reveal, the less accurate you are—the less reliable your memoir.

There are legalities regarding using real people in stories and a quick internet search will reveal a few guidelines; you are not allowed to slander or infer someone has broken the law, you must not impugn someone’s reputation to the point their value in the community is damaged. There is one absolute defense however—provable truth. In the U.S., the burden to prove damage is on the person written about, however in the U.K., this is the author’s responsibility. If you think your writing might do these things, seek professional legal help. Consider your writing carefully, intellectual property lawyers are expensive.

IT’S ACCURATE, IT’S NOT MY FAULT IF YOU DON”T UNDERSTAND

Recently I read a memoir that opened devoid of emotion in describing a psychotic episode. There was no explanation to explain what was going on. For two chapters the story seemed disjointed and poorly written when actually it was the character’s thoughts that were so chaotic.

Either through narration, exposition, dialog, responses from nearby characters, it has to be clear to the reader what’s going on. A memoir is not a clinical report. Use your craft and skill as an author to make your memoir accessible to all readers

I HAVE AN IMPORTANT AGENDA PEOPLE NEED TO UNDERSTAND

Many writers of memoir are motivated by one cause or another, often rightfully so. It’s a powerful tool. But if your agenda overwhelms your story, you’ll likely fail. In general, readers do not enjoy being lectured or hectored. Don’t allow your author’s voice to be opinionated. Instead, let your characters advocate your point. Show (don’t tell, that’s usually preachy) within the story, how obstacles are overcome, or should be, based on your cause to ignite the reader’s passion and brain. Distance your cause enough to make the story your main inducement.

Larry DunlapLARRY J. DUNLAP, is the author of NIGHT PEOPLE, Book 1 – Things We Lost in the Night, A Memoir of Love and Music in the 60s with Stark Naked and the Car Thieves, a current AMAZON BEST SELLER in POP ARTIST BIOGRAPHY. Find it in Kindle and Paperback at Amazon.com. The concluding volume of his memoir, ENCHANTED, Book 2 is slated for release in 2016.

In the years following his memoir, Larry roamed the streets of Hollywood as an artist manager, publisher, and Sunset Boulevard recording studio owner/operator. In the Eighties Larry founded the first digital broadcasting network on cable television, followed by several years in video and film production, and post-production. Larry eventually became a pencil-for-hire technical and training writer for Fortune 50 companies. He is a published short story author, music magazine columnist, and authored and drew a published music-based cartoon strip named Frets. Currently, Larry writes creative non-fiction and fiction from his home near the mountains east of Los Angeles.

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5 thoughts on “Five Reasons Why Memoirs (can) Suck by Larry Dunlap”

  1. Just had to chime in again here. You know, memoir writing is probably a whole heck of a lot harder than most people think it might be. My thesis advisor in school wanted me to go there, thinking that my personal story might have been good material.
    And I tried. Really tried to do it, all summer long in fact. But the story just wouldn’t grow. Perhaps, it was too close to the vest. Perhaps, it will still see the light of day at some point in the future. (For more on that, see my guest post here on Wendy’s site earlier this month, “Workshop Woes.”
    But for now, that personal story remains hidden, deep in my bottom drawer, a song yet to be sung, in favor of the crime-fiction, mystery noir novel that has sprung to life and is chuggiing forward at a healthy pace.

    My point? Memoir writing is hard. Like Larry says so well here. It is a skill, takes advanced craft writing abilities, and the story that you hold so dear, may or may not be for held quite so dear for everyone and their grandmother on the internet. After all, sometimes, it’s best to keep your cards close. Especially when the ante has gone up all round, and you stand to lose as much as you might gain!

    But for those of you who do give it a go, write-on! And hats off to you!
    You’re a braver soul than I!

    Great post Larry. Thanks much for this!

  2. Hi Lisa, thank you. I think the two things you have to examine in determining whether to write a memoir for general publication is a) whether there is a story arc that can interest a reader, and b) whether it is possible to reveal the true life events. As Dorothy Alison is quoted as saying, and I specifically apply it to memoir,

    “There is no way to be naked, which is what you have to be to be a good writer … and still be safe. What is truly naked is emotional exposure.”

    I think many authors turn to their own stories in other fictional settings, because it lends such authenticity to them. You may someday find the right frame to write your story, and there’s value in doing it. It’s surprising how much you learn about things you’d never suspected in the process. On the other hand, it can change your world in unexpected ways as well.

  3. Thanks for tha Larry. And yeah. Someday the right frame will probably appear. But the right timing I think, also plays a big part in the memoir writing process. Can’t wait to read yours now!
    Thanks again Larry!
    Cheers!

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