Writing Memoir

Memoirs’ bad reputation (and breaking in).

I wonder if memoirs are like crying babies, unless it’s yours, you don’t want to hear it…

Ever since I decided I want to be a big recognized writer, I have stumbled upon the misfortune that falls upon memoirs. I’ve learned that memoirists are by far the greatest types of writers at conferences trying to pitch their work. I’ve learned agents and publishers are not interested, unless you are, of course, famous. Or have had some outrageous experience like giving birth in a coal mine after escaping your murderous in-laws.

And I have learned that agents are super busy and important people and hopeful writers get rejected many, many, many, many times.

A few Pinocchios have inevitably tarnished the craft of memoir with their wooden attempts at life. Their exaggerations and lies and need for the wrong kind of attention have cast a shadow, a darkness that makes folks skittish, cautious and guarded. But despite the few who choose to embellish, there are plenty who write in order to share, heal, grow, laugh, identify, and shout.

Like personal blogs and reality television, some memoirs are appalling while others do a good job of illuminating emotions and experiences. It’s not for everybody, like preferences in music, we memoirists I’m afraid are not the classical music of our day. (Well, I’m not.) But a reinvention of 80s rock – spandex tight, shoulder padded and neon bright.

The inherit problems when writing true stories is there does not appear to be any structure to the story because life is – ongoing – there’s no bread to hold the sandwich filling, or my panini is either too thick or too thin, and the complimentary pickle spear has flaccid tendencies. We have to figure out how to edit the life we are currently living. Sloppy writing spills over all writing types and styles, it’s just with memoir we’re either too forgiving or too harsh.

The other problem is a lot of memoirs are too depressing. I’ve put down many books both fiction and non-fiction that went on and on about all the horrifying and disgusting events that happened to the main character. Fascination turns into disgust. And if the story is too sensational, too extreme it can become un-relatable. You lose the human condition for the sake of a dazzling set of circumstances. It’s about the wedding ring and not the marriage.

But we hopefully understand that all stories originate from life and we’ll judge this Frankenstein genre, or twist on personal essay, as a times table on the periodic element of humanity.

Modern memoirs are “recognized” rites of passage. I lost weight. I survived a divorce. I left the cult. I lived through this drug abuse, war, childhood tragedy. Intuitively readers are drawn to the human experience of transformation through tragedy or notoriety. We are searching for meaning in our sometimes mundane and bizarre existence. Modern society has left ‘everyday people’ with the remaining remnants of rituals in the form of birthdays, weddings and graduations, all of which have come to mean less and less as we get older.

I think because a certain kind of rhythm is missing to the beat of our lives, we are nourished by experiencing the “celebrated” transformations of others. We hunger for reality just as much as we crave fantasy. It is reassuring to know that someone out there has had similar thoughts and experiences. (Hey, I’m not that weird!) We want to be unique but we also want to be part of the gang.

All this drama surrounding memoirs means I have to figure out another way into the seemingly impenetrable fortress that is the publishing world. I have to prove that my journey, my rite of passage will have meaning for others too and that I’m cool enough to enter the exclusive club or that I will at the very least hold some entertainment value on the dance floor. I must find another way into the building, through the backdoor perhaps or – through a window.

***

As I listened to his urine hit the grassy lawn, I surveyed the house and cursed the fact that our mom forgot again to leave the key somewhere for us to find. I walked around to the back of the house to see if the sliding glass door had been unlocked by accident. Or the kitchen door – or the front door for that matter.

When I was in the 3rd or 4th grade, my mother became comfortable with leaving my younger brother and I at home alone. She was a single mom who had to work, and we didn’t know any better. It seems fitting thought that I’m part of the latchkey generation but ironically my mother neglected to leave the house key behind.

Simply waiting for mom to come home was a gamble as she would not always arrive any time soon. Sometimes we would hear the garage door open, see my mom pull up and rejoice in our salvation. Other times we would have to sit outside in the warm Hawaiian sun and try not to feel our suffering. But after awhile, I became frustrated with our predicament and learned to break into the house.

One of the characteristics of houses in Hawaii is the frosted glass horizontal window slats. To the left of the front door were two windows for the laundry room. When those window slats were open slightly, I would pop them open enough so I could wiggle the glass slats up and out. I had to use a patio chair to stand on because the windows were out of my reach. It was tiring work. You had to be careful not to break the glass then lean the long slats against the house upon removal.

Having created enough of an opening, I’d squeeze through and land on to the washer and dryer. And it wasn’t always a pretty landing. A laundry basket sitting on top of the washer or a stack of towels would sometimes get in the way. But it didn’t matter. I was in. Next I would jump on to the floor and open the front door.

Through the window it is.

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7 thoughts on “Memoirs’ bad reputation (and breaking in).

  1. Lani, your thoughts on memoirs are absolutely true – most of the readers prefer a dramatic incident in a memoir. But the truth is, life’s lessons are not always learnt from some dramatic experience – most of the times, it is from little things that we realize how beautiful life is.
    Also, the piece of your memoir is really nice – my own childhood memories of waiting outside the locked house for my mom came back:) Keep up the good work:)

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    1. Yeah, I’m all for drama in writing (never in real life!) but I don’t care for the over the top stuff and lack of editing. I think we have to be real careful of what to put in and what to take out. Big challenge!!!!

      That’s funny you were locked out too. Well, not haha funny but funny. Sigh. Thanks!

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  2. If only you’d used your skills to break into other houses, you could have, er, stolen cats and then returned them for the rewards. Just a thought.

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    1. 555 – yeah, I used my powers for good only 🙂 But now that I think about it, I had to break into the trailer I shared w/ a guitarist. I could never get the key to work, this was after college. Another story. More slatted windows.

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  3. best of luck to you! I can’t imagine trying to get a memoir published. It’s insanely difficult even for a genre that is considered more “marketable.” Memoirs are worth the time to write AND to read. Some of the most notable books in my academic field (Spanish lit) are memoirs, and I’ve read lots of them. Learned tons!

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    1. Thanks Victoria. I feel confident as I’ve made wonderful connections w/ readers via email and I’m getting nourishing feedback from the writers group I attend.

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