Tuesday, August 17, 2010


It is incredibly hard to write memoir. First there is that business with factuality - and the risk that, these days, an author could find herself sitting happily on Oprah's couch and the next minute be torn into a million little pieces.

Then, there’s the way that life keeps coming at you, doesn’t come neatly - beginning, middle and end - all organized by chapter. It’s chaotic and messy.

You have to figure it out: What order should I put the chaos into? Which chapter comes first? And all of that is craft and all of that is challenging but it isn’t the hard part. What makes writing a memoir like ripping your cuticles out with your teeth is this: Every time you sit down to write it, there’s your life, staring at you from the page.All of your mistakes, your avoidance, your incongruence, your lies, your posturing - to relive and all, if it's properly written, in vivid detail.

The thing is, by the time you’ve written it down, ironed out the awkward phrasing and inelegant prose, life has moved on - and you with it. And now, returning to the memoir for one more round of editing, you can see how very full of crap you were; and you fear that if you put this book out there, your life may just show you that you still are, but in a bigger and more public way.

Memoirs should come with a disclaimer, right on the cover, embossed in bright yellow or solid gold ink: This was once true for me but I have learned a lot while writing it and I know now that it’s all more self-indulgent nonsense.

Which leads us to the biggest challenge of all: The still and quiet place that arrives after the sorting and considering and re-drafting and shredding of your masterpiece - the place where suddenly, the helium of the task dissolves and you are left, deflated and pathetic on the end of a string of something that was once so promising.

It sneaks up - a deep peace that is somehow coupled with a desperate ennui, leaving you completely fulfilled and also, strangely empty. Depleted, arms heavy, you wake up from the dream you've been dreaming for a year or two or five and find yourself sitting before a stack of 400 pages of almost-finished copy - and have to decide: Can I go on?

Can I abandon the soul-drenching, thrilling journey of writing this and begin to sell it? Can I, after stacking themes and plot lines into place, when I feel so full of wisdom, set down this fascination with my own life and family and enter the world of agents, publishers and author's platforms?

- and THAT, oh, best beloved, THAT is what separates the author from the non-author, the dreamer from the doer, the wheat from the chaff. At least I think it is... as I find myself there.

Today, as I return to this work - and imagine wrestling it into a 'book proposal' - this priceless thing that I made, line by line, brushstroke by painful brushstroke. Can it ever be fit back into the box? Can this universe of joys and sorrows be brought down to concise chapter summaries? And can I, when I feel now so wide and special and 'solved" be the one to do it?

I don't know. But after two years (maybe three) I trust the process. I trust that I will figure it out - and maybe, I'll even enjoy it.

I trust that some day soon, I will wake up writing like my hair is on fire and my belly bursting to express the pure joy streaming from every cell of my body onto the page again.


MOLLYC said...

My blog is kind of like a memoir, although a slightly out of kilter one. Right now I am reading a delightful memoir called "Heart in the Right Place" by Carolyn Jourdan. Memoirs are difficult, I would think, because most of us have lives that aren't that interesting...molly

Erin said...

You astound me. Every time.

Ronna Detrick said...

Every worry, thought, and hope I have (and then some) about this process for myself is articulated here - beautifully, eloquently, poignantly.

I'm encouraged and compelled anew.

Thank you.

Lindsey said...

This is just where I am too - I sit here, wondering how to fit the morass and chaos of my life into some kind of "structure," and at least hourly hearing the demons scream in my head that I'm crazy for thinking anyone would be interested in reading my story. I'm intensely grateful for the inspiration and companionship you provide on the journey.

Amy Oscar said...

Oh, Molly - I think most people have fascinating lives. But until I started working on my memoir- I'd likely have agreed with you. For me, writing a memoir has been a voyage of discovery of the beautiful details - the themes and threads of gold - that were always there.

Erin and Ronna and Lindsay - Thank you for joining me on this journey - for reading my blog and offering your voice along the way.

lisa adams said...

a lovely piece with a lot of insight. I have read the memoir MollyC mentions and thought it was very good! Some people may not have interesting lives, but I also think that an interesting life can be ruined by a boring writer. Finding the combination of both is rare. Tone is key!

Peggie said...

The thing about memoirs is this: EVERYONE who reads them uses their own personal mirror and filter. What they love and hate is actually NOT you, it's who they think they would BE in your shoes.

Yet memoirs are so enticing and beautiful for just that reason!

Hugs Amy - gorgeous prose as always.

Cherry Woodburn said...

As you said Amy, trust the process, things will work out. It sounds as if you're remembering and learning a lot of this memoir journey. Cherry

Anonymous said...

Hello Amy,
This is just another student of Janet Mazur, here at TCNJ. I agree with your description of writing a memoir. I beleive that everything in our lives makes us grow, and if we take the time to look back and reflect upon it, we feel different about the situation. It must be very difficult to write an accurate memoir because at every stage in your life when you look back, you see your life different from more experience.
-Donald R.