Often, when I tell people that I’ve written a memoir about my childhood, I get this reaction: “A memoir? I can barely remember what I had for dinner last night. How do you remember allthat stuff?”
The truth that is I don’t, exactly. Memoir is a complex art, a tapestry woven of personal memories, stories from family members and friends, reminder cues from old photographs, and yes, fiction. Don’t get me wrong–a memoirist’s story is defined by its true-to-life accuracy, but many of the details of it are made up. In fact, an excellent memoir reads just like a novel because it draws on the storytelling tools of fiction. Setting, dialogue, weather, time of day–often it is impossible for the writer to recall these fine details, but they are needed to build the richness and, ironically, the credibility of the story.
I’ve always said that I don’t have the imagination to write fiction, and that is the truth. I have nothing but admiration for such writers, who are able to pull fascinating characters and original plots out of thin air. But memoir writing comes with its own challenges–namely, that you don’t have the convenience of making up events or characters to suit your story. You owe it to your readers, your publishers, and yourself to be as honest and transparent as possible. But there is a vast difference between a fabricated story being passed off as a memoir and using novelistic techniques to tell a true story. The former is a blatant lie or bending of the truth, while the latter is a fusion of honesty and creativity designed to open the writer’s world to the reader. My own writing process goes something like this: Let’s say I’m writing a scene about having a fight with my mother. First, I put myself back into the moment. I know that I was living in Calgary at the time, that I was thirteen, and that the argument was about her boyfriend. I recall that it was daytime and in the summer. From these facts, I build a scenario. Calgary is mostly sunny, so I write about the sun streaming through the windows as we scream at each other. Since I was thirteen, the year was 1983, so I write about the Swatch watch I was wearing. I think about the words we exchanged, remembering only the most important lines, and build on our dialogue from there–knowing what her tone of voice would be and the slang I would use as a teenager. Lastly, I find a way to connect this scene to the one following. And there you have it–the complete truth of recall, decorated by the brush of imagination and probability to create a complete scene.
I look at memoir writing like growing a tree. The solid trunk is the fact or event I am writing about. The branches are the connections to the rest of the story, and the leaves or needles are the details that, in most cases, can’t possibly be remembered. One of my biggest writing struggles was finding a narrative arc to my story. Real life, with its random happenings and less-than-ideal timing, does not provide this on its own. Add that to the fact that my early years were so chaotic–I often lived in a given place no longer than a few weeks or months at a time–and chronological ordering became truly daunting. Many times, I found myself sitting at my laptop, rubbing at a well-worn spot between my eyes as I attempted to organize and filter the many interesting and dull events in my life into a story that made sense, had meaning and would keep the reader engaged. My breakthrough only came when I was able to move beyond my preoccupation with writing about the trunk and allowing myself to focus on the branches and needles. I discovered that the networks between my story blocks were all there on mycomputer screen–they just had to be connected properly. A connection can be as simple as a tangible item carried throughout childhood, a remembered dream, or a second or third meeting with someone important to the story. After that, the needles on my tree are easy–and fun–to fill in.
In memoir writing, constant decisions need to be made about what, who and when to write about, but the most important is the how to write it. Our earth holds many trees–evergreens, deciduous, fruit, nut, weeping and sky-reaching. The how is the tree one chooses to grow through storytelling. During the writing process for my own memoir, I grew and subsequently chopped down five or six different trees before settling on the right one. In other words, the truth of a life story may take many forms depending on the way one chooses to write about it. My first draft was a chronological tale written from an adult’s perspective. Another began with the present and flashed intermittently back to the past. A more recent one had emails to my mother beginning each chapter. In the end, I settled on a chronological telling of my story from a child’s perspective, morphing into a teen’s and adult’s perspective as the story progressed. All of these versions told the truth, but they were very different accounts of one story. You get my point: memoir is stylized truth that, at its best, fuses a creative blend of honesty, intimate perspective, and timeless beauty.