Judith Barrington, memoirist and poet, has established a reputation as an excellent teacher and workshop leader. Her book Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art has become a well-known text in academic courses. When more than two professors recommended the book, I decided to buy it. I’m glad I did.
Barrington selects some of the thorniest issues in memoir writing and creates a “practical guide to the craft, the personal challenges, and ethical dilemmas of writing your true stories.” In twelve chapters she exposes the flesh of issues such as naming names, writing about living people, and moving around in time. Deftly she filets each topic, leaving the reader feeling empowered and informed.
First, you should know that Barrington’s own memoir Lifesaving: A Memoir has won several prizes and praise from such creative nonfiction luminaries as Vivian Gornick, Philip Lopate, and many others. After reading this craft book, I ordered the memoir also. I trusted Barrington’s voice from the beginning.
Barrington’s advice to writers begins with the idea of apprenticeship–years spent reading, observing, experimenting, writing, revising, and editing–before attempting to publish your work. Those of us who have spent longer as apprentices than we were hoping to will enjoy this exchange recounted by Barrington: a doctor at a cocktail party told writer Bill Roorbach that she was going to take six months off and write her story. “Roorbach’s satisfying comeback was, ‘You know, you’ve inspired me! I’m going to take six months off and become a surgeon!’“
Like many other craft book writers, Barrington advocates keeping a notebook ready at all times for the kinds of fleeting thoughts, sensory perceptions, that bring back memory. But unlike many other instructors in the art of writing, she spurns the advice to note all the “big moments” in your life. Instead, create a haunting story out of “lifelong preoccupations.” Let your journals record and guide you to your life’s signature story–the things that really matter to you. At the end of this chapter, and every chapter, are excellent exercises, some of the best I’ve seen.
Just as Virginia Woolf needed to kill the “angel in the house,” the totally self-abnegating, decorous Victorian woman’s voice in her head, so do most of us need to kill off inner demons. One can’t write a memoir without risking offense to others or to the image of ourselves others may have of us.
And yet. One of the greatest controversies in the field, and one that sparked the longest comment dialogue ever in this blog, is the question, “What does the memoirist owe to other people, especially those still living?” Linda Joy Myers tackled this question in an earlier post entitled, “How to Write Your Memoir and Still Go Home for the Holidays.” So I was eager to read Barrington’s chapter “Writing About Living People.”
She takes a moderately conservative position of whether or not to publish work that might hurt others. I found this piece of wisdom very helpful: “I feel certain that, if faced with an unresolvable conflict, peoples’ lives are more important than my words.” And I smiled when I read Annie Dillard’s wry comment, “Things were simpler when I wrote about muskrats.”
Too much concern about others silences the memoir voice. Too little concern may reflect undigested experience or the author’s immaturity. Barrington quotes Teresa Jordan as saying, “I think that if you understand the true depth of the story, it’s surprising how much truth people will embrace about themselves.” The key to striking the right balance between self and others may be to go another layer or two deeper into the story.
This morning, as I was walking, I listened to a wonderful podcast of novelist Edna O’Brien being interviewed by Diane Rehm on NPR. Even novelists, who are obviously making up their stories, can become outcasts in their home towns, as O’Brien was after the publication of her first novel, Country Girls. Often these same home towns become devoted to the memory of the writer who first offended them when it becomes clear that this writer spoke the truth in love.
If I had to choose one memoir writing book from all that I have read so far, I would choose this one.
Have any thoughts to share on this book or others on the subject of memoir? Anything you want to remember to carry into your own work?