. . . and what writers rarely admit about rejection & revision

[I took this shot walking to the library a few days ago. Seems a fit! #Richard Gilbert]

I have a lot of friends who are fiction writers, and they all told me that writing a memoir is different—and hard.—Darin Strauss, in The Washington Post

Darin Strauss became a memoirist with Half a Life, reviewed here, after publishing three acclaimed novels. I came across his admission above just after a scholar/essayist/travel writer who was visiting our campus told me, when she heard I was writing a memoir, “Memoir seems really hard for some reason. I had two friends start them and give up. They went back to writing fiction.”

I don’t think memoirs are harder to write than fiction. They’re kin to novels, but escape a novelist’s first monumental task: picking a point of view. All the same, for fiction writers, a memoir would be a new learning curve—probably also steepest because of point of view. That seems a given in memoirs, who is telling the story, but it isn’t, at least in terms of the writer’s persona. Sure it’s you, but which one? Where does s/he stand in relation to the story? How does the writer now make sense of the action then? What else besides the foreground story is going on with the narrator? (These are all just ways of asking, Who is telling this story? That question seems all-important in memoir.)

No wonder, as I’ve struggled to get this right myself, I’ve written so much here about persona in nonfiction. No wonder there’s a craft panel on this every year at AWP. The narrator must let readers in, seduce them, confide in them, treat them as friends. But ask nothing from them except that they keep turning the page. He, in my case, must know more than the earlier version of him who’s staggering through the life depicted. I think we desire a wiser narrator because we evolved not only to receive meaning in stories, we evolved to expect a survivor with perspective to tell about the hunt or the battle.

Washington Post writer Ron Charles, who caught Strauss’s admission about memoir’s difficulty for his fiction-writing friends, also wrote down Strauss’s elaboration:

     He offered a simple rule to the MFA students in the room: “If you’re writing a memoir, don’t say, ‘I.’ Say ‘she.’ You’ll have a much clearer sense of the character. When you say ‘I,’ you’re defensive. When you say ‘she,’ you’re more objective. The problem with too many memoirs is that you can feel the author trying to forgive himself in every paragraph.”

 (This surely is wise advice for achieving narrative distance, though presumably the writer goes back and changes everything to first-person viewpoint—not an inviolable rule for memoir but close to it, for practical purposes).

So . . . there’s something specifically hard about memoir that has to do with the closeness of the writer to her material, which is an aspect of herself. But an age-old writing issue also applies: a writer can think his book or essay or story is working when it isn’t, not yet.

We all know the story about scorned writerly brilliance. We’ve always heard it about novels and now we hear it about memoirs: the writer pounds out her guts at the keyboard; she writes a masterpiece and the world rejects it. Over and over! She persists in sending it back out, though, and after sixty-seven brutal refusals an editor or agent finally gets it. Finally. What’s seldom mentioned in such a scenario is how s/he kept working on the book after each rejection. Making it better, making it different. The book or story that finally was accepted and published—after more revisions—wasn’t what s/he started pitching an eon ago. When s/he thought it was ready. But it wasn’t.

I think this is true for others because it’s been true for me—but I am a slow learner and stubbornly capable of not hearing good advice the first (or second) time. Wiser writers than I who lack experience in a new genre vet their narratives with writer friends or in workshops. Some pros, no doubt, can smell insufficiency in their own work. I suspect that most of them, however, also air such doubts with their tough writing posse. But writing is so strange, a black art, that the tendency of friends is to urge you on. Anyway, in the end, each writer labors alone.

Poet Mary Karr has said her remarkable bestselling memoir Lit, reviewed here, took seven long years to gel. This was despite her having written two previous celebrated memoirs, The Liar’s Club and Cherry. The reason, she said, was because she kept trying to get her account of her marriage and divorce to feel right. She threw away 500 pages in which her ex-husband was an angel and as many again in which she was the wretch. Finally she hit her balance.

Each type of book, and surely each book, has its own challenges. The learning curve is a big U, after all. Our performance goes way down before it rises when we tackle something big and new. And any book is big and new. It is, in fact, novel. The difficulty of getting a book right may be why being “an author” still means something.

Whether the writer is getting rejected and keeps rewriting, or has the insight to plug away in silence, like Karr, until the manuscript is truly ready, sticking with it is called “learning to love the process.” Karr, speaking for herself, was less sunny: “It was so horrible.”


  • Brendan says:

    Great post, Richard. Very helpful as I go forward with my project. I’m torn between how I want the voice to be. I’m leaning toward the narration style of “A Christmas Story”, a movie as “memoir” I study closely, as silly as that sounds. There’s something about that awe-struck reflection that I feel can diffuse some heavy, personal bombs. Plus it’s funny. Who knows? Things to experiment with in the “U” of the writing.

    • Thanks, Brendan. Keep going! I think movies can be very apt and inspiring. Two that, to me, are better than the books they are based on: To Kill a Mockingbird (because it doesn’t drag) and Fried Green Tomatoes (because it’s more moving).

      • The screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was written by the distinguished playwright, Horton Foote. I happened to go to school with his kids, and, one day, I went up to him, breathless with awe, to tell him he got the story exactly right–that it was just like the book. The gracious Mr. Foote told me, “well, actually, hardly a line of dialogue in the movie is the same as what’s in the book.” A big ahah moment for me as a kid writer.

  • Beth says:

    Writing memoir while the various players in one’s life are still alive truly is a “black art.”

  • Richard, this post itself is a mini-memoir. The honesty of it, the wisdom, and inspiration are greatly appreciated. The need for the wiser narrator – the survivor – to give perspective to the story is particularly meaningful and helpful to me.

  • Hi, Richard, I enjoyed this discussion, as I do pretty much everything that comes out of your mind/computer. It made me recall something I recently read in Francine Prose’s book, READING LIKE A WRITER. She talks (in the section on “narration”) about only being able to write her first novel by tricking herself into writing it as a narrative being told by one character to another. She goes on to talk about something I find fascinating, and have heard from other writers. I’ll quote her:
    “The reason I say ‘tricked myself’ was that this device enabled me to overcome one of the obstacles confronting the novice writer. This hurdle disguises itself as the question of voice and of who is telling the story (should the narrator be first or third person, close or omniscient?) when in fact the truly problematic question is: Who is listening? On what occasion is the story being told, and why? Is the protagonist projecting this heartfelt confession out into the ozone, and, if so, what is the proper tone to assume when the ozone is one’s audience.” I think this matter of who is listening, to whom is the story being told, applies to memoir as well as fiction. I think it helps to imagine the listener–even more than the reader, especially in first person narratives. I heard Michael Cunningham say that he writes for 3 or 4 people he knows, and I read something from Russell Banks about writing THE SWEET HEREAFTER (which I love) by thinking in terms of who the narrators were speaking to. So I think maybe the listener is part of the equation — not just who is speaking, but who is listening…

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