I was stunned when conversation at my book club drifted into comments on memoir in general. I’d just mentioned that I’d been appalled at the proliferation of typos and other errors in a memoir I recently read that was, sure enough, self-published. “I cringe when I read something like that because it casts all self-publishers in a bad light.” But even so, I’d been mesmerized by the story and seconded the recommendation of a previous reader.
I could never have anticipated the ensuing, spontaneous discussion. How I wish I’d had my phone’s recorder running. I did scribble a few notes, summarized below:
“I’m more forgiving about sloppy writing and errors in memoir … I’m more interested in hearing their story than how they tell it.”
“I can overlook a lot of structural stuff because the story is what counts.”
“Memoir is about real people, things that actually happened. Most of them are not professional writers and I don’t expect them to sound like one.”
“Flaws make memoir credible. If it’s too polished, I wonder how much truth got scrubbed out by editors.”
“You can’t critique a memoir because you haven’t walked in that person’s shoes. I’m just fascinated by other people’s stories.”
Wow! I recognized an opportunity to listen and learn rather than steering the discussion. I kept my astonished thoughts to myself to avoid biasing things.
Members of this group are voracious and discerning readers. Every Tuesday afternoon 12 – 20 women (men are welcome, but never attend) meet at the library. A high number have advanced degrees. Several are retired teachers or professors. A few of us also write. But most of all we read, widely and constantly. We each read whatever appeals to us and report back to the group, some in more detail than others. At least half the gals at any given meeting report on more than one book. Rarely does anyone pass. A significant percentage of the reports include some form of the observation, “It didn’t work for me, but other people may like it.”
In general we collectively hold books to high standards, so, I have full respect and regard for their thoughts about memoir. I cannot imagine a better qualified focus group to address this issue, especially since it arose spontaneously. They don’t write, teach or promote memoir, so they have no reason to be anything but frank.
Perhaps today’s comments ring even more true, because in thinking back, I recall a couple of memoirs that got a thumbs down after comments like “It was too dry and didn’t have much to say.” Celebrity memoirs full of false humility that fails to mask self-promotion also get blasted. The story has to ring true.
Does this mean we should forget about editors and publish first drafts? Of course not! I take it to primarily mean that we should make sure our heart and soul stays in our story and that it retains our unique voice. We still need beta readers to find holes, inconsistencies, and parts that don’t make sense or ring true. And I don’t think these gals will mark you down for a tightly written manuscript with a compelling plot and story arc, strong tension and character development, rich scenes, and no typos. All those fiction devices work, but only if the story rings true.
The bottom line in their remarks is STORY. It’s all about the STORY. Those dry, flat memoirs that got ripped lacked STORY. Do what you need to do to make your story clear, focused and active, and don’t hide it under too much gloss and device. But take heart that if you do slip up a bit, or can’t afford thousands of dollars for a top-notch editor, or you’re just writing for family. Don’t despair. Write it true, write it real, and write from your passion and heart.