ABCs of Flash Writing: M is for (short) Memoir

Posted by on Apr 30, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: M is for (short) Memoir

“In memoir, the heart is in the brain”
(Art of Memoir – Mary Karr, 151)

Crafting a compelling, but brief memoir is not only daunting in its ability to launch emotional upheaval for the author, but also in its grandiose expectations to relay past experience as truthful, meaningful, and respectful of the recreation of all characters, events, and cinematic moments involved. Memoir is a highly intriguing genre because readers find attachment to the reality that ‘this story actually happened’ and ‘this person is actually real.’ Novels create distance between reader and writer as fiction whelms truth and the universe of the story is believable within the context of the story, but not necessarily within the realm of the real world. This is what makes the contrast found in memoir so powerfully appealing, yet also so very difficult to do well. The ultimate goal in flash nonfiction memoir is to compose an effective, engaging, and truth-stirring memoir through authorial possession of factual truth, vulnerability, and diligent efforts towards developing an entertaining connection with the reader to keep him intrigued from the initial onset and throughout the duration of the story.

“Truth works a trip wire that permits the book to explode into being”

(Art of Memoir, Mary Karr 37)

One important cornerstone objective of effective memoir writing holds that the memoirist has to be a believable narrator. If the reader senses that they are being lied to or events are being fabricated from false narrative, then the memoir will fail. “No one believes that memoirists aren’t constantly assaulted by detractors and naysayers and lawsuits…The best memoirists stress the subjective nature of the reportage. Doubt and wonder come to stand as part of the story” (Karr 14). The relationship between factual re-telling and interpretation of past events is a tenuous one as no one remembers things exactly as they happened. If that was the case we would have no need for multiple witnesses to an event and lots of lawyers would be out of business. But the reality of it is that past memories litter our brains, and as time passes, the intensity of realism in our memory fades. Thus, the author or memoirist relies on conveying feeling. How did the event make me feel? Why did I feel that way? What is the purpose of this event I remember? Why am I telling it? What investment should the reader have in it? Will those involved accept my re-telling of the event? It is a curious task to re-create the past, but if a memoirist strives towards authenticity and embraces his or her interpretation of events within the context of the subjectivity known to the present re-telling, then the reader will buy in and remain engaged.

The memoirist must also remember that he is still a subjective narrator and the reader should be made aware of that fact. However, the memoirist should not be a charlatan or someone dramatizing his or her life as fiction. If that is the case, then the story is to take the form of a novel, not a short memoir. “A real novelist tells the greater truth with a mask on” (Karr 167). There is an unwritten pact made between the reader and the writer that ensures authenticity in the re-telling. Yes, the events are left to interpretation of the author’s experience, but under no circumstances should they be newly generated, overly-sensationalized versions of past events. As Karr explains, “And the more memorable the voice, the truer a book sounds, because you never lose sight of the narrator cobbling together his truth – not everybody’s agreed upon version” (41). Above all, the memoirist must be genuine in his voice because it represents the heart of the psyche. A true memoirist questions the truth, but does not stray from it.

“Don’t sanitize your past…normalize it so the reader can access it” (Karr 150)

In addition to being a truthful, reliable narrator that the reader can trust, another component of effective memoir writing is the vulnerability of the memoirist. “By transcribing the mind so its edges show, a writer constantly reminds the reader that he’s not watching crisp, external events played from a digital archive. It’s the speaker’s truth alone” (16). A memoirist has to possess a heightened sense of self-knowledge and examine his or her life through a narrow, scrutinizing lens. According to Karr, unless a memoirist is vulnerable to exploration of how the past has shaped him and is willing to be truthful about that reality, the memoir will not be insightful enough to stand alone or to succeed. Being vulnerable means breaking the shell that guards one from his or her most haunting truths. Being vulnerable allows for the shaping of perspective, interpretation, and ultimately, meaning. “To tap into your deepest talent, you need to seek out a calm, restful state of mind where your head isn’t defending your delicate ego and your heart can bloom open a little…(be willing) to unclench your mind’s jaws” (31). Vulnerability of character in memoir also allows for the main character and secondary characters to demonstrate growth over time. Karr sums it up as follows:  “I take it as a given that personal essayists must examine their prejudices and instinctual aversions as starting points for any honest analysis of their characters or views” (149).

Further, memoir also address the gamut of human cognition. Cognition is our own unique thought process and metacognition is what helps us to understand why we think the way we do. Developing clarity in mental cognition breeds depth of insight, which nonfiction writing needs to be successful. For flash, choose a specific part of that “cognition” you wish to explore. In the book, To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, Philip Lopate explains that the nonfiction writer is able to facilitate specific elements of cognition because writers have a heightened sense of consciousness. When they come to that realization, they also recognize that they have the obligation to share that consciousness with others. As a result of this expressed consciousness, the reader begins to see the fullness of their own humanity. Lopate illustrates this as follows:

“Consciousness makes us aware that we are divided, made up of disparate,

contradictory parts…They (children) might want to believe they are innocent angels, as adults tell them they are, just as the adults tell them Santa Claus is real, the trouble is they are already conscious. And guilt and shame come from consciousness, more so than for doing evil” (8-9).

Lopate suggests that nonfiction allows the writer to wrestle with his or her own conflicted sense of consciousness, but also that the reader is invited to grapple with their own. How rich then does literature become when it facilitates the exploration of human consciousness – how we see the world, exist within it, and how we function to stabilize the conflicting motives of our being? Nonfiction memoir gives readers freedom to think and engage with the cognitive mind and self-identity in space and across time. In that way, it is a most empowering literary genre.

The beauty of nonfiction then is thus that the reader can get the best of both worlds of drama in fiction and realism in essay. As Lopate explains, “…a writer of personal narrative can then choose how measured or feverish she wants to come across at any time: in one piece, she can sound like the soul of reason; in another, a step away from the looney bin” (21).  Nonfiction must interest, engage, entertain or “at least provocatively stimulate the reader” (33). This is no easy feat, but because there is a divested interest in wanting to know the why and the reason behind life, if amused, the reader will be most apt to plug into the personal essay as a space to think, to learn, and to sort through complexities of life.

Finally, in regard to the production of an enthralling, short memoir, the reader must be entertained in some way. After all, we read to learn, to experience, and to be pleasured and entertained. The author of books has a lot of instantaneous forms of entertainment to compete with in the modern age. However, if the reader is pleasured or enlightened line by line, the time in reading will be well spent and the output of that time the reader invested will be gratifying. Use active verbs, swift transitions, fresh metaphors, and stylistic differences to entertain the reader and bring the story to life. Draw the reader into the experience with voice so they feel close to you and invited to live inside your story. Keep in mind that “…a voice has to sound like the person wielding it – the super-most interesting version of that person ever – and grow from her core self” (Karr 36).

As an entertainer, the memoirist needs to learn to charm people and Karr states that one of the best resources for procuring charm is to create carnal memories. Reporters spew facts or palm off data, whereas the memoirist uses carnality to give depth and sentimentality to lived experiences. “Physical details don’t prove anything in terms of truth” (75). The reader needs to feel and connect with the experience at a sensory or “carnal” level. When assessed as a whole for craft purposes, the foundation for an entertaining memoir rests in the establishment of authentic voice, the use of sensory details, and the inclusion of carnal memories.

Altogether, writing memoir, especially flash memoir, is not for the weak of pen or weak of heart. However, if done well, memoir writing can be a most rewarding experience for both writer and reader alike. Being a truthful, vulnerable narrator who intends to entertain through cognition and carnal memories, the memoirist can create a vibrant story of truth and self-knowledge. Memoir writing is an empowering venture and a most significant one to undertake. Chronicling our stories gives our lives deeper meaning, and in sharing them, we preserve the collective history of our common humanity.

Works Cited

Karr, Mary. Art of Memoir. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016. Print.

Lopate, Phillip. To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. New York: Free, 2013. Print.

Andrea Cladis is a former journalist and high school English teacher currently working as a fitness professional and freelance writing consultant. She is Summa Cum Laude graduate of Elmhurst College with degrees in English, Communications, and French. At present, Andrea is pursuing an MFA in Writing from Fairfield University. Her poetry and prose has been published in The Greek Star, Kane County Magazine (Shaw Media), academic journals, and online publications including Thought Catalog and Patch Media. Her first non-fiction book, Finding the Finish Line: Navigating the Race of Life through Faith and Fitness, was released in the fall of 2017 by Crosslink Publishing.