By Jarred McGinnis
Writing memoir the most important question you can ask yourself is, why do I want to do this to myself? Writing is hard enough and you are adding the difficulty of navigating the ethical minefield of writing about your own life and the people you know, some of whom may be litigious. If that wasn’t bad enough you must have a complete and objective understanding of your main character, you.
Good luck with that!
That’s called dramatic irony…
Dramatic irony is when the reader’s understanding of events or individuals surpasses that of its characters. For example, in Othello we know Iago is a wrong’un before Othello, or how we know Oedipus is making some very icky and very tragic mistakes way before he discovers it. It is a powerful technique to employ.
Room for disclosure
In memoir, it’s possible to create dramatic irony within the text but there is another level of dramatic irony over which you have no control. It is that of the author’s own unawareness of the disclosures they are making. And, let me tell you, in 80k words, there’s lots of room for disclosure. You must be prepared for the inevitability of that. It is a risk unique to the form. For example, throughout Philip Roth’s memoir The Facts, blame is heaped on the women in his life and never himself. He seems to have little insight into his own pathology when it comes to relationships with women. And yet throughout his fiction we see reverberations of his toxicity and sexual predation. This layer of transtextuality complexity is not possible in fiction. As a reader of memoir, I am drawn to the possibilities inherent in that dissonance.
My novel The Coward had many iterations where it oscillated between the two forms of memoir and fiction. Ultimately, for the book to get to the insights I wanted to communicate (e.g. about trauma, addiction, disability, family, etc), the story had to be unmoored from the facts. I needed the freedom of fiction more than I needed the dialogue with or the documentation of a former self.
Stuck? Find your pivot point
When I am stuck and feel I might have painted myself into a corner. I deliberately try to rewrite the same scene or story to see if form is an issue. Memoirs, unlike the autobiography, are usually tied to a theme or a moment or an era in a person’s life. Often this involves a ‘pivot point’ in your life.
Think back over your life. Think of the pivotal moments of your life. Write them down. Just a word or a phrase to jog the memory. While you do this, notice the emotional response. Who are the other people you think of? What are the moments that come up but you don’t write down? It might be that aversion means there is something to explore there. Go on, add it to the list. Do this for about ten to fifteen minutes. Then pick one of these moments to expand. Fill a page or two about it. Remember all the things that make good fiction: specific details appealing to all the senses, not just sight. Write it as a scene.
Let it rest
Now go back. Maybe not just yet. Let it rest for a day or so. What tense did you use? What point of view? Probably first person. Write it in a different tense and/or a different point of view. Writing about yourself in the third person might give you the distance you need to really write what you need to write.
Now, rewrite the piece from someone else’s perspective. This could be the main ‘antagonist’, a passerby or a god imbued with omniscience. See if these changes unlock any insights about the moment or about how to approach the writing about that moment.
Jarred’s debut novel The Coward was chosen for BBC Radio 2’s Book Club and listed for the Barbellion Prize. His short fiction has been commissioned for BBC Radio 4. He is a mentor for the Word Factory. He has a PhD in Artificial Intelligence.