Doug Jones says a memoir is not an autobiography, which requires research to verify events and dates. No, he says, a memoir is the story of your life or, perhaps, a milestone event you’ve experienced. Your story must be what you believe is the truth—in all its warts, pain and glory. To borrow from The Bard, “To thine own self be true” is the key to memoir writing. Doug’s a playwright, too.
“Why are memoirs so popular?” Doug asks. In the class my brother-in-law Bob and I attended, Doug says we read memoirs to connect with others, to assure that we not alone. To know that our fears, doubts, and joys are universal feelings; that every human has them.
“Who would want to read about my life?” Everyone in the class asks. “There’s nothing special about it.”
Doug disagrees. Guiding the class through a series of timed writing exercises then asking us to share our “interior monologues”, he proves to us that our stories can be interesting.
“Don’t worry. Don’t edit. Don’t stop. Just keep moving your pen,” he advises.
The exercises are designed to help find the “nugget”, or common theme, which can lead to scenes, or chapters, and, eventually, a story others may want to read.
On memories of being four years old, Brother-in-law Bob hit one out of the park by writing the phrase “on my side of the street.” This sweet expression conjures up all sorts of images and questions: What does this four-year old’s voice have to say about Bob the man? Or, what’s so special about his side of the street? Will he ever cross over? If he does, what’s waiting for him there?
Try it out. Starting with the phrase “I remember…” write for ten minutes, non-stop. Then read it aloud to a friend, roommate, spouse, or to yourself. Then, repeat.
Or, better yet, sign up for Doug’s memoir writing class this fall at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Here are some memoirs I’ve read over the last year or so. About the author’s stories, one’s funny, one’s heartrending, and every young woman pursuing a career in public service may want to consider reading the third.
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson
All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington by Condoleeza Rice