Writing Memoir With Marion Roach Smith

Memoir is a misunderstood genre, and I am as guilty as anyone for underestimating it. In today’s interview, Marion Roach Smith explains the power of memoir and how we can all use it to become better writers.

kobo writing lifeIn the update, it’s fantastic to announce that the podcast now has a sponsor in Kobo Writing Life, a fantastic platform for indie authors. I’ve been publishing on Kobo for the last year and it’s definitely been brilliant to see sales grow in Canada and in many other countries.

I also announce the launch of my new novella, One Day In Budapest and mention my research video which you can view here. I was also on BBC World on a segment about digital publishing and ebooks – an exciting week!

Marion RoachMarion is the author of 4 books, and she has written for the NY Times, Vogue and other publications. She’s been teaching memoir writing for 13 years and her latest book is ‘The Memoir Project – a thoroughly non-standardized text for writing and life

  • Marion started by her career writing for the New York Times about the death of her mother from Alzheimers, which was rare back then. Since then, she’s written more books – about forensic science and the history of red hair – as well as lots of pieces for mainstream media like Vogue, plus blogging.
  • On the definition of memoir. Understand your territory and what it covers, as defined by your areas of expertise, one area at a time. You’re not writing about “your life” – it’s more about a specific insight into a specific aspect of your expertise. For example, Drinking: A Love Story. One area of life in great detail. Memoir is not biography, as most of us are not famous enough to justify it. Comparing memoir to narrative non-fiction and the vagaries of genre bending.
  • Everyone has lots of stories, and writing from a need for therapy is legitimate as is a need for self-understanding. Asking provocative questions will help in order to delve down into the reasons behind. A piece of memoir that gives an insight into something else. Decide on your intent and focus on that, rather than just laying it all out there.
  • On the importance of editing and what to leave out. You have an argument or a position to illustrate with your book, so you should only leave in the stories that illustrate this. You shouldn’t be centre-stage. There should be some deeper consideration of your theme and argument. Every page must drive the story forward.

Just because it happened, doesn’t make it interesting.

  • What is truth? Memoir is ‘your’ truth, but there will always be another version of the truth. Don’t mess with the intent of the exchange, even if you can’t remember the actual words. If your ultimate piece is laden with cliche, ‘it was the saddest day of my life,’ that’s not truth. You need to go deeper.
  • On family. You can’t libel the dead, but the upset of family emotional impact is a common issue with memoir. Write first and let’s see what you have before you start worrying. Don’t write for revenge. Privacy can be a real issue so make sure you have a good reader, who is NOT anyone close to you, especially if they are in it.
  • Using memoir within our fiction and non-fiction. Bits of our lives come into many different forms of writing e.g. my book Career Change contains anecdotes about my own working life. That is memoir – pieces of personal narrative that illustrate a theme/argument.

The commercial prospects for memoir

  • Remember – just because it happened, doesn’t make it interesting. That’s the biggest mistake. Find the theme that resonates with other people. For example, a day by day, blow by blow account of your life with your dog vs. how animals can change your life, as illustrated by stories about you and your dog. You need to differentiate between what happened to you and what the book is truly about. Marketing is also critical, but it’s more about finding your niche around your message, the community who care.
  • On finding an editor to help you step outside your story. Decide what kind of editor you want, and there are people who can help. Deciding on what stories to leave in, self-editing, is critical Memoir Projectbefore you go to someone else. Write your argument/theme on a piece of paper on the wall/ planner and then write down the stories as they come to you, as they relate to that theme.
  • Writing is one of the most efficient and productive ways to improve your own life.

You can find Marion at www.MarionRoach.com and @mroachsmith on Twitter

You can find The Memoir Project on Amazon and other online bookstores.

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. says

    Thank you! This is incredibly useful advice, and very timely. I just sat down today to try to edit out some 20% of the chapters in my current work, which is–you guessed it, a memoir! This interview hammered the point home that anything extraneous to the argument needs to go, even if it’s peripherally connected. That can involve some tough decisions. On the other hand, your example of the woman who wrote lots of different stories, each centered around a different argument, gives me hope that even all these pages that are about to find themselves on the digital cutting room floor may yet see the light of day as part of a different story.

  2. says

    Thank you! This is incredibly useful advice, and very timely. I just sat down today to try to edit out some 20% of the chapters in my current work, which is–you guessed it, a memoir! This interview hammered home the point that anything extraneous to the argument needs to go, even if it’s peripherally connected. That can involve some tough decisions. On the other hand, your example of the woman who wrote lots of different stories, each centered around a different argument, gives me hope that even all these pages that are about to find themselves on the digital cutting room floor may yet see the light of day as part of a different story.

  3. says

    Great advice in here! I don’t write memoir per se, but I agree it’s often an undervalued genre. I, for one, am rather fascinated with the inner workings of people’s lives. I enjoy seeing how they live differently from me, what I can learn from their experiences, etc.

    I’d like to add that it helps to have an editor, if you can get one, who specializes in memoir. Although I don’t use her for this purpose, my editor, Marcia Trahan, happens to be one such editor. She can be found at MarciaTrahan.com

    Good luck to anyone currently working on their memoirs!

  4. says

    This is a good one, and well-timed for me. Thanks Joanna and Marion. I’m currently writing a humorous memoir about my crazy dog, whose lifespan happens to overlap with some pretty major events in my own life. My Incident Selection criterion has been basically: if it don’t say something about the dog, it don’t go in the book. But now I am inspired to tighten that up even more as I think more critically about the deeper themes driving the dog story. (Some of those won’t be completely clear till I finish the first draft, I’m sure.) Bookmarking Marion’s blog now!

    And I really loved that little power tip: write cliches in the first draft as placeholders, and fix them later.

  5. Tim Suder says

    Due significantly in part to a momentary reason for lapse, the research undertaken to undertake my well-intentioned undertaking, (the memoir) has left me in an otherwise abysmal state of disarray regarding the notes required of one during the course of the research undertook. In hindsight, I think it unwise of the individual intending to memorialize the effects of unknown influences on the human psyche whilst absorbing intolerably intolerable quantities of those in question without being properly fitted with appropriate dictation devices before doing so, to do so. Although ones’ intentions are ultimately geared toward the remembrances of their experiences upon the initial notion of their goals, (the memoir) the effects of the research materials may in fact far outweigh the researchers’ aptitude to convey the outcome upon the completion of their research. Therefore, might I suggest to the professional, a companion of sorts, one of whom (willing or otherwise) will attempt to dictatorily guide the pilot as he/she navigates the depths of those the others cannot fathom without first discovering the words of the ones who sought to understand for them.

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