It was BookExpo’s Book Week in New York from May 23 to 27, with lots of events around town from an outdoor ‘book club’ on David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, to a Teen Author Carnival at a downtown public library.
I caught some of Marion Roach Smith’s talk on her new book, The Memoir Project at the Barnes & Noble store on Columbus Circle and, boy, did I wish I could have stayed for more. (New York always makes you start saying things like, boy!)
If all writing teachers spoke as clearly and directly as she does then the world would be saved from oceans of sub-standard writing class garbage and a great many good books would become even better.
She’s a writer whose own four books are deeply rooted in memoir, and whose sell-out classes help people tell their stories, and over the years she has obviously learned to cut straight to the chase.
Remember, she told her audience, you are not writing your life story, you’re writing a story about your life. And every story is ultimately about something –grace, mercy, enlightenment, comfort. “It’s not about you. Not if you want something real it’s not. It’s about something else, and you are the illustration of that something else.”
What you need to do, she instructs, is “write with intent”, working out what you want to say, what you’re going to use to communicate this, and the form you’re going to say it in; whether it’s a book, a blog, or a bumper sticker.
Warm and unassuming, she nevertheless takes a tough line on how to go about this. Forget the morning pages, scrap the writer’s exercises, ditch the scrapbooks and the “angel feathers”. Instead write with “pure intent”, asking yourself: what is this about, and what best expresses it?
Careful choices are everything. “The story about a woman who struggles to do up her zip alone for the first time after her husband has died says more about loss and grief than any amount of writing about how much she misses him,” she says, and directs her audience to think of Galileo standing in Walmart among the deep fryers and digital cameras looking for the small but essential part of his telescope which, once completed, will prove the earth revolves around the sun. If he lets himself get distracted by looking at other things he’ll be lost. He needs to get in, find the thing he needs and then get out. And “that’s your assignment, too, when you go into your subconscious to write memoir.”
So impressed was I with what she communicated in just fifteen brief minutes, I e-mailed her on my return to the UK to ask more about her approach.
In her reply she told me that much of what she teaches about life writing can be found on her website http://marionroach.com/.
Her blog on memoir writing is full of useful musings including the following synopsis of the talk she will be giving to writer's retreat groups this summer:
- Memoir is about territory, and you need to know how to stake out the boundaries of your story.
- Making it up is never an option.
- Along with lying, other known hazards of memoir writing include being self-congratulatory, which is never ever a good idea.
- To get going, how about writing some lists? Lists are good, of course, and always welcome.
- Characterization is key.
- The myth of writer’s block is just that – a myth.
- Knowing when a story is ripe for writing is essential, as I did when I waited 46 years to write the story of my fourth-grade play.
- (Then I add) a general pitch session, when writers pitch me their tales and I show them how to make them small enough to write.
The Memoir Project: a thoroughly non-standardized text for writing & life is available on Amazon.