Ahead of her next Memoir workshop, Sarah Vincent writes about how to manage bitterness, anger and hurt in memoir writing.
Years ago I did a workshop on memoir writing with the great memoir writer and teacher Patti Miller. Her workshop was full of terrific advice, but one thing she said in particular has stuck with me …
“There are two things readers of memoir will not put up with: bitterness and self-pity,” she said.
Wise words! But then how do we write about things we are still bitter about, or feel sad about without alienating our readers? I have mulled over this a lot. A memoir that only deals with the happy parts of your life would be dull to read, and indeed the best memoir writing goes into some pretty dark places. Recent examples of best-selling memoirs that explore dark subject matter are Magda Zsubanski’s memoir ‘Reckoning’ and Jimmy Barnes’s ‘Working Class Boy’, both terrific tales that really touched readers. So how do we go to those dark places in ways that aren’t just about wallowing in pain or being hell bent on revenge?
Patti suggested using humour and also writing from a place of insight and understanding. I would add to this that there are actual writing techniques you can use to help you write these difficult parts of your life. Using detail and drawing on the universal themes of your story are two ways to approach these difficult experiences to make them rich and very readable.
Specific well-chosen detail is the great friend of any writer. For example, it’s much more powerful to describe the mean teacher who made your school life a misery as having a permanent fleck of spittle at the corner of her mouth in ever-quivering readiness, than to just say she was a nasty lady who shouted all the time.
Universality is the opposite of detail and the two work perfectly together. Small, well-chosen details root the reader deeply in a scene and make it come alive for them. Universality lifts the experience to the level where the reader can apply the experience to their own life. Always remember that people read memoir to gain an understanding of how someone else has faced challenges and what they have learned from them.
In my workshop '16 Rules for Writing Memoir' I explored these two techniques of using detail and lifting a memoir up to its universal themes. Workshop participants came out of the workshop with a thorough checklist of 16 skills and techniques that will make their memoir writing stronger and more vivid. Some of the 16 skills are easy and obvious, others are more complex, but all give a thorough toolkit to make your memoir writing sing.