This is the Hugo House “How-To” series, where Hugo House instructors share tips related to the writing life. This week’s post comes from writer Anne Liu Kellor. Her ten-session course, Memoir as Collage, will explore personal narratives as told in a lyrical, fragmented, nonlinear fashion through in-class writing exercises, discussion, and workshopping.
1. You don’t need to know what kind of memoir you are writing.
But you may want to ask yourself: is your memoir plot-driven, with a narrative arc, like most traditionally-published novels and memoirs? Does your character (a.k.a. you) have a problem to overcome or a quest to go on; does she reach a climax in understanding and is redeemed/healed/changed? Or is your memoir more driven by themes, a series of interconnecting storylines, layers, questions, and more subtle transformations? Maybe you are not sure yet; maybe it is something in between. You might not know which themes, arcs, and storylines need to be in the memoir until you are further along. Maybe all you need to do is keep asking the questions for now, and keep writing. Its form will eventually reveal itself.
2. You want to collect many images.
Striking moments. Searing memories. Recollections of places, scenes, or objects that function as symbols. You’ll want to free-write often in order to keep collecting these jewels of memory. Don’t worry too much yet about which ones are “worthy” of keeping. Just keep writing, sifting through old journals and photos, taking walks, letting the past and present sink in. Trust that whatever arises may have meaning; don’t discriminate or judge. Patricia Hampl writes, “We only store in memory images of value.” Do you believe her? Why, for instance, do you recall this memory from childhood, and not thousands of others? Maybe there is something there for you to untangle, discover, mine.
3. Keep asking yourself: What are my obsessions? What are my reoccurring questions and themes?
Which of these will you explore in this book? Remember, a memoir needn’t tell the whole story of your life. It might only examine one potent thread, or two, or three. On the other hand, who says a memoir can’t be about many things? Who says these seemingly disparate strands are not all connected? The trick will be finding out which approach is best for this particular book. For now, write anything, write it all. Later, the distance of time and good editors can help you weed out what doesn’t belong, and what might be best saved for a future project.
4. At some point, try writing an outline.
A list of all the fragments you have in mind, whether full-blown chapters with mini-arcs of their own; small snapshots of memory/vignettes; or poems, lists, images, letters, research, dialogues, fictions, or other scraps that you don’t know what to do with. Take stock of all you’ve collected, see what is there, shuffle bits around, and notice if any kind of natural order arises. Does it make sense to keep things chronological? No need to reinvent the wheel. Or does it feel right to tell your story non-linearly in cycles, or to weave in flashbacks? Ask your story what structure suits it best.
At some point, you might also notice which chapters convey which themes (or which ones follow certain forms or point of views) by literally highlighting those aspects in different colors on your outline or with colored sticky notes on the page, then seeing how those colors interweave. How can you balance out those different strands, create a flow of rhythm, form, and meaning? Keep outlining at different stages, seeing how your vision changes. Keep moving fragments and chapters around to see how they converse and connect.
5. Experiment with different points of view.
If past tense feels like it’s dragging or you fall into the reflective voice too much, try changing it to present tense. If present tense is not allowing you enough space to reflect, try changing it to past tense or interweaving sections with your older, wiser voice. Want to change things up even more? Try writing in second or third person. Give yourself permission to play with the writing. Trust that even if the experiment doesn’t yield “results” for the memoir, it might still teach you something, or give you a piece of writing you can publish elsewhere.
6. Finally, seek out community.
Solitary creating is wonderful, but at some point you will need dialogue. You might need others to write with in person when your own generating sessions leave you bored or stuck, or you might need others to give you feedback on where the energy lies in your work, or how you can best draw it out. For eventually, you will become too close to your own writing and you will need help to see it anew. Finding a writing community is an essential part of the writing path. Who, after all, can understand the intense joy, exhilaration, struggle, and pain that comes with the process of writing a book more than other writers? We need each other to keep going, especially when we may feel like giving up.
Anne Liu Kellor has received support from Hedgebrook, 4Culture, and Jack Straw, and taught creative nonfiction since 2006. Her essays have appeared in publications such as Waking Up American (Seal Press) and The Los Angeles Review.