Do you recall, Dear Reader, when I said that to be a Literary Lion you must write? Or words to that effect? Yes, that’s right: Step Two in my Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.
I may have neglected to mention that, even when you go on to other steps, such as getting feedback, hobnobbing with other literary lions, and submitting your work for publication, you still must continue to write.
Case in point: Your New Favorite Writer.
State of Play
At present, I am juggling multiple balls. Besides posting this blog, I have a finished historical novel manuscript, The Maelstrom, being considered by more than one traditional publisher. I am polishing another historical novel—a coming-of-age story about a young boy, Izzy Mahler, in the 1950s—and will soon begin seeking a publisher for it. I am always, of course, on the lookout for likely places to submit some of my completed short stories and poems.
But while all this is going on, I must keep writing.
Which brings us to the current project.
I am writing a memoir—have written only a few thousand words of first draft so far, and I don’t know where it’s going. This in itself is odd—because you would think I’d know the story. Writing a memoir is like writing a novel, except that you generally have some idea how the novel ends. In the case of a memoir, you know the whole story in great detail but can’t figure out what parts make it a story, and what parts make it an insufferable catalog.
How does memoir differ from autobiography? They could be the same—but not always.
I like to think of an autobiography as a document written by a person of note. (That would exclude Your New Favorite Author.) Benjamin Franklin wrote an autobiography. Lincoln Steffens wrote an autobiography, but it’s arguably more a memoir. Harry Golden wrote many memoirs or autobiographical pieces, but they might better be considered miscellaneous collections of reminiscences. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading, but they are a different genre.
The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant is a great autobiography as well as a great memoir.
Confused yet? If you’re not, you just haven’t been paying attention.
Consider: “What makes Larry F. Sommers worthy of an autobiography?” Absolutely nothing—in the sense that I’m neither Hillary Clinton nor Jon Bon Jovi.
On the other hand, if you’re talking memoir, well—I’ve lived a long time, learned a lot of things, and have something to say. Memoir-writing guru Marion Roach Smith says memoir is about what you know after what you’ve been through.
I’m only now beginning to understand it’s not as simple that. Maybe I’ll sign up for her course.
The structure of a memoir is crucial. I’ve got a slam-bang, surefire opening chapter—a riveting account of a reconnaissance flight from my time as a member of the U.S. Air Force. But what comes after that? How do I integrate the opening chapter with all the other things I want to include?
“All the other things I want to include” is a big fat hint. The trouble is, I want to leave in way too much.
In seventy-six years, one may accumulate a lot of experiences and quite a bit of wisdom. But good writing, a book you would want to read, depends on selectivity.
Every bit of my life seems tremendously significant. To tell it all would take millions of words. Even if I live another thirty years, there may not be time enough to write it all down. And then—who would read it?
Martion Roach Smith also says that all non-fiction, memoir included, is an argument. To wield the razor effectively on one’s own narrative, one starts by knowing what the argument is. Then you only leave in that which supports it.
So here’s where it gets tricky: I don’t know what I’m trying to say, and I won’t know until I write it down. My writing is not the triumphant display of certainties already discovered but a stumbling exploration of what the past may mean.
So in tackling a memoir, I’m being forced to change from an outliner to a pantser. I’ve got to just write, until I get a glimmer of the path forward.
The only comfort is, you can tell is when it’s not working. You can feel when your prose is floundering. Then you need to back up and do something different.
I call this “living the dream.”
Thanks for listening, Gentle Reader.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)