Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Memoirs and "Memoirish" Nonfiction

My newest Write Your Memoir class begins this afternoon through the Cameron Art Museum's Museum School here in Wilmington, and I'm excited. I love teaching almost as much as I love writing, and the class is full, so I anticipate a rewarding and creative few weeks.

This class is focused on memoir, but memoir writers are everywhere you find writers. Whenever I teach writing classes, attend conferences, or participate in writing groups, there are invariable people present who are working on memoirs, or thinking about it. We (meaning "we humans," not just "we writers") have an abiding interest in our own stories. For a memoir to work for readers other than the author, though, it needs to be about more than me, me, me.

Let's get the confession out of the way: I'm working on two memoirs, too, or as I like to think of them, a "memoirish" nonfcition. Both of them weave my story into bigger stories, one of those about riding long-distance trains through the United States, the other about - surprise! - dogs. Let's talk about the doggy one.

Anyone who knows more about me than my name knows that dogs have been an important part of my personal and professional lives. So there's the core of the thing, the memoir part: me and dogs. And then there's the "ish" that makes it memoirish: the book is about dogs in a larger sense, about the linkages that have existed between our two species since we were both hunkering down in caves to gnaw on bones, which leads us to broader reflections on our place in the world and relationship to the creatures with whom we share it.

All of which prompted me recently to reread (for the fifth or sixth time) Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of the Personal Narrative (2001), which I highly recommend to anyone writing memoir and, really, most types of narrative nonfiction. It's a slim book but is not an easy read. In fact, I'm sure I haven’t grasped all the subtleties even yet. Still, Gornick’s main point seems clearly to be that effective personal narrative is neither plot nor setting nor structure nor emotion alone, but a rich amalgam of those elements and more. Nor is effective personal narrative an exercise in self-indulgent navel gazing; the author must, Gornick argues, transcend the self and take on a persona that "is the instrument of illumination."

Structure is essential. To illustrate, Gornick reflects on a eulogy that stood out among several others because the eulogist had imposed structural order on the things she had to say. As Gornick put it, "Order made the sentences more shapely. Shapeliness increased the expressiveness of the language. Expressiveness deepened association....dramatic buildup occurred....This buildup is called texture. It was the texture that...caused me to feel, with powerful immediacy, not only the actuality of the woman being remembered but – even more vividly – the presence of the one doing the remembering."

Structure, the rest of the book argues, is built up of a situation and a story told in the voice of the writer’s persona. Just as a novel has a narrator who is not the author, a well-written memoir has a narrator -- Gornick's persona -- who is not the author. That's a sticky distinction for most of us to make, but it makes sense when we realize that we tell our own stories differently for different audiences. Or, as Gornick might say, we take on difference personae for differing purposes.

Gornick defines "situation" as "the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot," including conflict between the persona and something or someone integral to the situation itself. "Story," in contrast, "is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer; the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say." It is, in other words, the persona’s complex response to the situation.

It is that persona(l) response to a situation - the situation of the book - that draws us in, but it is the larger meaning of personal story that keeps us there, fascinated by another person's story because, in the end, it is our story, too.


What are your favorite memoirs or "memoirishes"? I have a long list, but here are five that stand out for me, and they are all about much more than the authors who wrote them:
  • Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams
  • The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
  • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
  • Dog Years by Mark Doty

I hope you'll come back on Friday, when I will be suggesting some ways that you can help your favorite authors (which of course helps you if you want to read more from them!). You can sign up at the right for reminders, or follow my Facebook page or Twitter - I always post the link when a new post shows up here.


  1. Thanks for the information, Sheila. I plan to order Vivian Gornick's book.I need some help with the structure and texture. I'm taking time to brainstorm ideas and will begin to rewrite with new eyes.

  2. Elizabeth (dogma police) woodside- Found cheap subsititute: The Memoir Project, by Marion Roach Smith. Formerly published as Writing What You Know. Slim, to the point, and engaging. 114 pages, I'll share Wednesday.

    1. Inexpensive, perhaps, rather than cheap? :-)