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.
In 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 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 before 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 The Memoir Project on Amazon and other online bookstores.