Thursday, June 2, 2011

Excerpt: "How to Write a Memoir" by William Zinsser

I was in New York recently for a writers' conference and ran into somebody from my past—she was the books editor at Cosmo back when I ran the magazine's copy department. In the conversation that ensued, Betty mentioned her friend William Zinsser, whose book Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir I've been carrying around with me for months. I'm a big fan of his, so I asked Betty how she knew him, and she told me they're in a singing group together. I am so jealous. It turns out that Zinsser is a lover of old-timey songs, a subject he often addresses in his blog for The American Scholar (to read his post "Stardust Memories" click here). He's even written a book called Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs.

By pure coincidence, two members of the Hale Street Gang have been writing about music in their current memoirs, and it is not unusual for someone in the Monday group or the Tuesday group to begin humming a little tune and then somebody joins in and pretty soon we're all sitting around the table singing. I clearly remember one winter afternoon when Margaret Egerton was still with us and both she and John Jackson happened to mention the same song in the pieces they read aloud that day. It was "Love's Old Sweet Song" ("Just a song at twilight . . .").

So now, of course, I want to start a singing group where friends gather round the piano on Friday nights and sing old Beatles and Pete Seeger songs.

I am eternally indebted to Zinsser for helping me learn the memoir-writing process. Here's an excerpt from his book On Writing Well:
Most people embarking on a memoir are paralyzed by the size of the task. What to put in? What to leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story? The past looms over them in a thousand fragments, defying them to impose on it some kind of order. Because of that anxiety, many memoirs linger for years half written, or never get written at all.
What can be done?
You must make a series of reducing decisions. For example: in a family history, one big decision would be to write about only one branch of the family. Families are complex organisms, especially if you trace them back several generations. Decide to write about your mother's side of the family or your father's side, but not both. Return to the other one later and make it a separate project.
Remember that you are the protagonist in your own memoir, the tour guide. You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control. This means leaving out of your memoir many people who don't need to be there. Like siblings. (To continue reading, click here)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Everyone Has a Moment. What's Yours?

This morning, as I was searching for something new to inspire the memoirists in our groups, I found my way to "Smith," the online magazine launched by Larry Smith, who pioneered the six-word memoir. For anyone interested in memoir-writing, Smith is a gold mine.

Question: "Can a single decision, happenstance, accident, call, conversation, or even email change the rest of your life?"

The magazine posed that question for a story project called The Moment and invited readers' submissions. The resulting book will come out in January 2012. A sample: 

Moments Are Like This…

  • Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, overhead her parents talking one evening, and her four-year-old world was profoundly rocked. She writes: “Hearing my mother’s voice calling to my father like that filled me with the most eerie and unsettling realization—namely, that these two people, my parents, existed separately from me.” Read her Moment.
  • Jeremy Toback was at an anti-war rally in DC when he realized that he could not stop the war in Iraq, but he might be able to stop his marriage from falling apart: Read his Moment.
  • Cheryl Della Pietra picked up the phone at 3am to find it was Hunter S. Thompson calling. She had one moment to accept the offer to become his assistant, provided she could leave the next morning. Read her Moment.
  • AJ Jacobs watched as his third-grade science teacher chucked a piece of chalk at his friend Max. As a stunned classroom looked on, the teacher said, “I shouldn’t have done that.” That was the moment AJ realized that adults are just as big fuck-ups as kids.
Continue reading at Smith.