For many successful writers, the act of writing is a natural outgrowth of who they are. There’s nothing mysterious about it. There are tons of pragmatic articles about how to set up the workspace, how to generate ideas, how to discipline oneself to write every day and, of course, how to get published. All of this ignores the reality that, for the most part, this is all wallpaper.
Having survived an MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, I have come to accept the reality that no one can teach you how to write well. I went to classes, read all the required books, eagerly awaiting the gold-plated secrets of magnificent writing. But, to my disappointment, I found out there aren’t any. Once you know the basic rules of structure and grammar, any definition of quality becomes murky and highly subjective, lacking either a set of rules or anything approximating a template. There’s no dearth of “how to do it books,” some of them even helpful. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say that all those suggestions seem to evanesce when I sit down at the keyboard.
For me, there are three major linchpins in the life of a memoir writer, at least this one. The first and most often overlooked is the need to have lived a divergent life. If you find your life mundane, how can you write about it in an interesting manner? Many marketable essays and best-sellers seem to ooze psychopathology – addiction, sexual and physical abuse, psychiatric disorders, among so many others. As humans, it’s no secret we are morbidly fascinated by dysfunction. Does this mean you have to have had an episode or two of PTSD in your life? Be unable to survive without a supply of anti-depressants or other psychotropic medications? Crisis and trauma can be viewed as sometimes sufficient but not necessary conditions for publication.
I am enthralled by those writers who took that less traveled road, who were motivated by a vibrant inner drive, who took the time to figure out who they are and what they want. Psychopathology is not required to write an affecting, well-constructed essay about your unique experience.
It’s not just the act of having a captivating life that provides fodder. The hard part is having reflected on it, synthesized it for its context and patterns. If you’ve accomplished that, you can offer your reader more than just a well-told story but useful insights. This does not have to be a heavy-handed pop psych treatise. It can be done with a light touch and even wit if that’s your propensity.
The second linchpin is the actual writing. Everyone seems to have found an idiosyncratic way to tap those creative juices. For me, I seize even the smallest germ of an idea that might be floating around in my brain and then let it ferment. Sometimes it’s for a few hours, other times a few days but seldom longer. Why am I thinking about that particular person or event? The answer is often because it/they generated intense emotions and led to some significant awareness. I work to understand how this particular essay might fit into the overall pattern of my life and my identity. Again, I let the gray matter incubate while I’m doing other things—reading books, watching TV, going to dinner with a friend— knowing the pot is bubbling on the internal stove. Agatha Christie has said, “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” The same could be said of an essay, at least in its initial “Eureka!” stage.
And then that first sentence emerges. It’s the most thrilling part of the process because now I know what this essay is about and where I’m going with it. The first line has to be a gripper, stimulating an internal urgency so that I am almost driven to unlock the rest of the story. At this point, I’m not thinking about the reader yet but more my own extraction process—the need to explore and organize. When I read that opening sentence, it should tweak my curiosity. And if it does its job, the rest of the essay seems to flow. I write to the end, wherever that may take me, and then conclude with a different but equally engaging emotional twist as the opener. After this, editing is the easy part. And it’s here I start to think about the reader, the craft and the shape of the piece. I always read it aloud several times during its metamorphosis for the tempo and rhythm. Like a complicated musical composition, every essay has its own cadence.
This may sound magical but it is far from that. If you have done your work described as the first linchpin (living a complex life and synthesizing it), you have created the conditions for ready access to the database of your life. As Louis L’Amour famously said, “Start writing no matter what. The water does not flow unless the faucet is turned on.”
Part three is more pedestrian but just as essential: the business side. Assuming you’ve completed a small number of essays, now you want to get your work out there. How to do that? You probably know about Googling, i.e., “literary magazines that accept memoir essays,” and are familiar with various submission sites on Facebook and the indispensable Duotrope. It’s also helpful to keep a file of possible submission sites with length limitations and upcoming deadlines. For every essay, I will submit to five literary magazines at first. As each says, “No, thanks,” I’ll insert another in the queue. Duotrope issues a weekly report on theme submissions, too, and that’s another possible source for inspiration. When your essay is accepted (Yippee!), it’s imperative to inform the other magazines to which you have submitted. I’m pretty sure no one keeps track of the thoughtless writers who neglect this common courtesy but doing it makes the world of publication a more civil one.
These three linchpins will give your memoirist ambitions a greater probability of success. As you can see, that first step is the one that requires the most work, the most soul-searching and therefore the riskiest. If you know who you are (and were) and understand the significant markers in your life, memoir writing is more likely to become a satisfying and fluid experience.