The many faces of memoir (and poetry)
Memoir has a problem. One word is used to denote very different forms of writing.
Poetry has the same problem. As we try to make our poetry gatherings useful to everyone, we need to define and label the differences.
So at our last Sunday Poetry Roundelay, we tried to come up with a name for the "serious" poets who publish in literary journals and write to-the-bone compressed and surprising work. These are the people who understand (and use) scansion and who labor over each syllable, whether it rhymes or not. I think of this as "academic" poetry.
Then there is Helen Steiner Rice, whose poetry has touched millions of people. There are the verses on Hallmark Cards and DaySpring coffee mugs. The everyday, memorable verses that inspire and amuse us. VERY different from academic poetry. But valuable to more people.
What would you call that? Popular poetry?
As a teacher, I don't want to force people who want to write popular poetry into trying to write academic poetry. There should be two separate words to express such diversity.
And memoir has the same problem. My column last week in the Lovely County Citizen was entitled "Bleed on the Page." In it, I tried to demonstrate how to write "literary memoir" in the path of Cheryl Strayed's Wild or James McBride's The Color of Water, which is the wonderful book we are reading for the book club that meets at It's a Mystery. In that column, I took off my clothes to explain that you really have to bare your soul, to bleed on the page, if you want to write a publishable "literary" memoir.
But, not all of us want to bare our souls. I really don't, which is why I don't write memoir.
Some of us just want to preserve some stories for our families. This, too, is called memoir. And this type of storytelling is what we will explore in our Saturday workshop with Marilyn Collins, who has written several books on how to do it.
"I'm always amazed at the incredible life stories participants share," said Collins, "and their reasons for preserving these stories. One person was concerned that the religious heritage of her family was drifting away as members scattered around the world.
"Another wanted to ensure that the women's stories wouldn't be lost. Others want to tell the lives they led before their children and grandchildren were born.
"The most important decision that memoir writers make is finding what they really
want to say--want others to know and remember about them.
"The first question that memoirists often ask is, 'What do I do with all my stuff --
memorabilia, old photographs and so forth?' I am passionate about helping writers retrieve their treasures collected throughout their lives from closets or under their beds -- gathering dust somewhere -- and turning them into story."
Collins offers a simple system for organizing material in a way that you can find what you need and, even better, know where it fits into your memoir.
"People also ask: How do I handle sad or bad times in my life? I don't want to make anyone mad. A well-balanced picture of your life usually includes both the happy and the not-so-happy events," Collins said, and she offers positive tips for exploring the more difficult parts of one's story.
Collins helps students create and use story-prompt cards about their lives which make putting a memoir together much easier.
"My students love this system and continue to use it as they write and finish their memoir," she said. "Students can shuffle the cards, visually order and reorder the story line and even toss a few.
"Using this method along with the timeline process gives a picture of the entire book at once. Writing and finishing the project becomes believable."
Whether you write "academic" or "popular" poetry and whether you want to write a "literary memoir" or a story for your grandchildren, there's a place for you at the Village Writing School.
This Saturday, Collins will give you plenty to work with to "Tell Your Story Your Way." Register online at VillageWritingSchool.com or phone me at 479-292-3665.
* * *
Alison Taylor-Brown has an MFA in Fiction and a lifetime of teaching experience. She directs the Village Writing School (villagewritingschool.com) to foster the development of area writers through workshops, writing circles, coaching, and special events. Her column, The Village View, appears weekly. To talk to Alison about your writing goals and dreams, contact her at email@example.com or 479-292-3665.