Essay and Memoir
Is It About You?
What if Mom Reads It?
The Hot Heart and the Cold Eye
The word “essay” may remind you of what Mrs. Bernardicou with the baggy arms made you write back in high school, and in truth the word covers a lot of ground. In this book I talk about only one kind: a short piece, about 800 to 2,000 words long, that you write in the first person about something that happened to you. Over the years of writing the column, I wrote hundreds of these, although of course mine were all the same length, about 700 words.
A memoir is longer—a book, in fact—but similar. You can think of the short personal essay as an extremely short memoir, and of the memoir as a very long essay. A memoir is more complex, with a story that unfolds over months and years. The two have the same relationship that the short story has to the novel.
Successful personal essays and memoirs share these four elements:
1. They are about change
2. They are about you (this is less of an obvious point than it may seem to be)
3. You write about real people
4. They are well-crafted — put together in a way satisfying to a reader, rather than just blurted out
Let’s take this list one by one.
Whether you’re writing a short essay or a 100,000-word memoir, you aren’t required to find a new universal truth — a weighty topic that has never been addressed before. That’s impossible. Humans have spent centuries documenting such truths. What you do is share your personal, eccentric struggle with one of them and tell us how it changed you.
By changed you I mean altered your behavior, your choices, your understanding, or your relationships with others. Knowing that you will be writing about change helps you choose which of your stories will have meaning for others.
Some life events feel huge, but do not necessarily change you. You and your mother haven’t spoken in six months. You got fired, you got dumped, you got cancer, or you got treated unfairly. These stories affect you deeply, and feel as if they have meaning for that reason. But many upsetting events come up under the heading of Shit Happens. You can lose a lot of time trying to write about them. Practically everybody who gets fired sits down to write a book about it — but what’s the story? Getting fired makes you mad, but that’s not change. The change may be in what happens next: after you were fired, you realize you never meant to spend your life cooped up in an office anyway, and go to Guatemala to rescue street children.
Let me give you an example of a vivid event that nonetheless doesn’t show change. My sister Nora told me about taking a cab down a dark back street to a business meeting at a hotel in Taipei when suddenly the driver jumped out and ran off. Nora was left with her suitcase and little blue overnight case in an empty cab. She couldn’t even read the street signs, and had no idea where she was. In the end, though, she found her way back to the hotel without much trouble.
“Did that experience change you?” I asked her.
“I found out I could take care of myself when I needed to,” Nora replied.
“Before that cab ride, did you think you couldn’t take care of yourself?” I asked.
“Well, no,” she said. “I always knew I could.”
No change. She was the same confident person after the experience as she
was before it. She didn’t find out anything new about herself. She remembers that night because she was alone in a strange city, with street signs she couldn’t read.
Nora’s story is an anecdote — a short recounting of an interesting or humorous incident. Anecdotes have a strong role to play, but they don’t always add up to an essay no matter how much time you spend on them. It’s funny that your old mother bought a BB rifle to kill her squirrels with, but that’s all it is — funny. An anecdote is just something that happened. Running into Mick Jagger in a sports bar in New York was exciting, but where’s the struggle, the change in you? Belinda Hulin, an editor at Skirt! Magazine who took a workshop from me, put it this way:
If there’s no catharsis, no growth, no change involved, then you’re left with an anecdote — a part of some larger whole — rather than a self-contained essay or story. Like that of most women, my life has been full of hilarious-in-hindsight incidents. But alas, my accordion body, my landfill approach to housekeeping, my bizarre divorce, my cradle-robbing second marriage, my unseemly yearning to become a born-again trust fund baby and the myriad instances in which my slow-to-rehabilitate smart mouth have gotten me into trouble, are just not going to write. Why? Because I’ve happily, gloriously learned nothing from these romps.
the crafty writer
You want to write about your anecdotes anyway, because they’re so vivid or shocking or funny. Everybody says, “You should write about that.” Group them with other anecdotes to make a story: “My Brushes with Celebrity,” “Disasters That Didn’t Happen,” or “Three Things That Happened That Led Me to AA.”
Not all experience reveals, but all revelation comes through experience. Find the points of change (turning points, learning points) in your life, and you will find your material: the time you realized you were gay, that your mother was not going to get better, that it was a mistake to move to the country, that you are not going through with the adoption. Or the day you threw your estranged husband’s nail gun into the bushes, and realized that the worst part of divorce for you was not how badly your spouse behaved, but how badly the process made you behave. The time your Volkswagen filled with twenty pairs of expensive shoes was stolen in Mexico, and to your surprise you were glad. The time you discovered you had a twin who died at birth, and decided to become a pediatrician.
Everybody’s life is filled with such moments. When you sat on the steps in your wedding dress and realized you had made a mistake. When the friend who’d annoyed you every hour of your trip together in Ireland saves you from a gypsy and you realize it is not the first time she has saved you, that she has always been your protector.
I remember a turning point in a graduate seminar at San Francisco State. I’d been a shameless grade-grubber: my idea of getting ready for a discussion of a book in class was to streak over to the library to look up what other people had thought of it. I wasn’t about to be caught thinking that Moby Dick was actually about a whale, or that Women in Love wasn’t really a very good novel.
One day my classmates and I were assigned a paper on a poem the professor handed out. As usual, I tried to crib the answer from the library but I couldn’t — the poem was unpublished. I studied that poem for days, carrying it around in my purse on the N Judah streetcar, puzzling over it at meals. I couldn’t make heads nor tails of the thing. Finally, I wrote something or other and turned it in. When the papers were returned, mine had a scrawled red D on it, as did most. What was the poem about then? we demanded to know. The professor said, “This poem is an extended metaphor about the act of writing.”
I sat there with that D paper in front of me. I unfolded the poem, wrinkled from my many readings, covered with my notes.
The turning point would be something like this: I must have read that poem 20 freaking times. I have normal intelligence and I was paying attention. If I didn’t get that the poem was about writing, then the poem deserved the D, not me. That moment came late in my formal schooling — I left the next semester — but it was the beginning of my education. Before that day in class, I went to the library to find out what I was supposed to think. After that day, I thought, what do I think? I never again looked up the critics.
Is It About You?
You are the subject of the personal essay or memoir, the one to whom the experience is happening, the one who undergoes the change.
Is a piece you’re writing in first person about something that happened in your life automatically about you? Not necessarily. You may just have been in the neighborhood, or in the family, or in the way. If your best friend’s mother just committed suicide, how is that your story? If the memory of that kept you from later taking your own life, it’s important. If it was just something shocking that happened when you were around, it might not be. A story about the scheming hospice nurse who got herself written into your mother’s will and ran off with your inheritance still has to be about you changing. Being the victim of a swindle, or suddenly being poor, is not change, but bad luck. Finding out that people can be rats is not change, either.
This may sound obvious. It’s not, really. One student wanted to write about being conceived after her father had a vasectomy. But she wasn’t there. (Her father might have a story to tell us, though.) I wrote the whole first draft of my memoir about my teenaged daughter Morgan without grasping that a memoir written by somebody’s mother has to be about being a mother — not about having an at-risk teenager. In fact my early drafts were not so much a story that built to anything so much as an annotated list of Morgan’s escalating escapades: “And then she cut class and lied and got in stolen cars with boys who went to other schools. … And then she met a boy who introduced her to speed and got her pregnant. … And she refused to go to the drug program and I kicked her out. …” In between each of her adventures you were treated to some shots of me sobbing on the bed or wetting her stepdad’s shirt, the ocean air blowing in from the window Morgan had so recently disappeared out of.
I didn’t even know that a memoir had to be about me.
If you’re writing about your stepdaughter’s severely disabled child, the essay is still about you — how you feel about that child, perhaps how you have tried and failed to accept him. If your father shouts at you, it’s not about him. It’s about why you put up with him, how this affects your life, what choices you make because of it.
(If the story is not about you, by the way, that’s fine — it just means it’s a different essay than the one we’re talking about here. It might be humor, or a first-person piece about another person, or any of a number of first-person forms that are not the personal essay.)
Your writing is not only about you, but about you not exactly at your best. Personal writing works best when it has a rueful aspect — illusions shed, wrong turns taken. You got something wrong, did something wrong, thought something wrong. Thus your bad moments are gold. (If your life has been one of ping-ponging from triumph to triumph, keep it to yourself, thanks). It’s much easier to write about trouble, because you are vulnerable and we like you when you’re in trouble. As J.P. Donleavy said, “Writing is turning your worst moments into money.”
My friend Steve Rubenstein, a reporter and columnist, was riding across the Golden Gate Bridge once when the handlebars snapped off his bike. “I had the first line written,” he told me, “before my head hit the pavement.”
George Orwell said that many writers never mention the humiliations that make up seventy-five percent of life. Write about what you really think and feel, and how that’s different from what you’re supposed to think and feel, like the day your friend left a telephone message saying she had cancer, and you waited until the next day to call her back. Cop to things: you don’t want your ailing mother to live with you; you backed your SUV into a Miata when it was raining and didn’t leave a note. Write about the “I Hate Sarah Club” that you and Shirley Matson formed when you were eight.
Philip Lopate said in his wonderful introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay:
The real possibility of the personal essay, which is to catch oneself in the act of being human … means a willingness to surrender for a time our pose of unshakable rectitude, and to admit that we are, despite our best intentions, subject to all manner of doubt and weakness and foolish wanting.
That doubt and weakness and foolish wanting? That’s your material. My dad’s mother died when he was five, so that as a child he went from house to house, and stayed sometimes in orphanages. He said to me once, “I ever tell you about sneaking down to the cellar at about sixteen, to study not a corset ad, but a bloodied fighter held in the arms of a woman in his dressing room? You can believe I never told no headshrinker that. That gave the whole show away, and I’ve always known it.”
Your aim is to give the whole show away. Rip the curtains from the windows. Describe what you long for, because your mother died when you were five, and no one held you in her arms like the woman in that picture.
Did you ever do something that you knew was wrong? Been wrong about someone? Been surprised by your own behavior? Write about it.
Write about the contents of your closet. Who did you buy that rabbit shearling fur coat for? And those tall, spiked black boots, the ones that were going to change your life? How many of the clothes fit you, or fit who you are now? Be specific.
excerpted from Naked, Drunk and Writing by Adair Lara (Ten Speed)