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How to Begin Your Hybrid Memoir by Sarah Cannon

Posted Fri, 4/10/2020 - 12:37pm by  |  Category: , , ,

The hybrid memoir has the potential to be far more than a straight-up personal story.

The appeal is the creativity of blending various elements and the result is a fresh take that can resonate in larger ways than a traditional narrative. I like it because it feels as though you get to ignore the limitations of genre rules and use several means for inspecting why you remember something the way you did.

Collecting thematic bits of material—say poetry, historical records, lists, and micro-essays—and finding the through line can shape a story in ways you never imagined. It’s all about balance and context. It’s kind of a magical thing, when you realize you have enough bits to make a book. Here are tips to get started! 

Find ways to recall how you paid attention.

Do you have pictures from which to draw inspiration, or a journal or diary? Is there a painting, a piece of schoolwork, or anything in the crevices of your deepest bottom drawer that still feels consequential? Sarah Manguso said when interviewed about her 2015 memoir, Ongoingness, that “Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.”

What are the physical documents of intimate moments you feel compelled to record and share? Can you find them, reorganize and interpret?

Think of yourself like a bird collecting bits for her nest.

If you look at a hybrid memoir as a whole, then take it apart, it often looks like a bunch of material that if sorted and separated might appear quite distinct. If we are birds using our resources, we are not wondering why do we do this; we are focused on what can I use. What can I use that will help me build my home?

There are a couple of cool things about thinking like this: One, you begin to see your work as craft—a boat must float. Two, thinking like this lowers the need to get it all right the first time. You know in your collection, like the birds, that some of the mud might stay, some might go. Working with chunks is the way to see if something might “fit” or not. What are the pieces inside ourselves that are smooth and wet like leaves; sharp and angled like sticks; and loose and whimsical, like feathers?

Decide on your ticking clock.

Now, I know this literary device is usually detailed for fiction, but I posit that it works and should be employed for any emerging manuscript. In a way, it helps answer the essential question that ought to be top of mind: Why am I writing this? A ticking clock (and there can be many within a story) is simply a time limit within your story.

Limits in time are not necessarily about creating high drama, say, like the suspense of an actual ticking bomb, but about introducing tension, which we know helps move readers along. Having a day, or a month, or a season as your deadline for something in your life can cause the kind of stress that make for compelling words on the page. This can be done within your small bits, or your bigger-picture narrative.

Read small books that aren’t bestsellers.

This is why community classes are so wonderful. You will learn about authors and books and aesthetics you never considered before. We can certainly learn from bestsellers, and as writers we should be reading unfailingly in every genre, but it’s also true that the hybrid form is usually smaller (in pages, not ideas or feelings), more intense. So I say challenge yourself. Get out of the comfort zone. Find something that confounds others.

When we can, we will return to losing ourselves in bookstores and libraries, but for now there’s the internet, with tons of excerpts from books written by writers—some of them contemporaries living right in your own town!—who deserve to be read. Fall in love with a new writer no one’s ever heard of and brag to your friends.

Imitate, imitate, imitate.

It’s in classes like these that we learn how to give ourselves permission to copy another person’s writing style. We’ve read something that knocks our socks off, and we wish we could do that, too. Growing up we’re told this is some evil approach to creativity, that copying is bad. I can’t understand why, and it bothers me that through this thinking we look at “genius” as this natural gift no one works at.

The reality is, we will never be another person; we will only be ourselves. Imitation is a form of practice, and through it emerges clarity of self and the development of a unique style. So take those non-bestseller readings you find and respond in kind. Write a new version.

Don’t forget the funny.

By funny I don’t mean ha-ha jokes, although if you have them, by all means make me laugh. What I mean is, in looking at your bits and pieces, in thinking about your moments in time, and in discovering authors you love, consider the absurd. Adding a layer of ridiculousness, or at least an observation of ridiculousness, sometimes eases the burden we carry in telling our true stories. The hybrid form is already kind of funny in the way collages can be whimsical.

Remember, you are a bird, and birds like shiny things. You don’t have to keep the absurdity if that’s not your intended style, but in draft making, it might help uncover the heart of the matter.

To learn more, join me on Zoom for The Hybrid Memoir: Why Not?, starting Wednesday, April 22.


Sarah Cannon is the author of The Shame of Losing (Red Hen Press, 2018), which was a finalist for the Washington State Book Awards in 2019. She lives in Edmonds, WA.