by Jerry Waxler
When I first began to study memoirs in the late 20th century, the only how-to book I found was Turning Memories Into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories by Denis Ledoux. For me, it was a seminal work that introduced me to the methods and notions of life story writing.
Civilization proceeds on an upward path only as long as we can continue to learn from those who came before us. By reading Denis’ book I was able to stand on higher ground. Over time, my shelf of books about writing memoirs swelled, including fine works by many of the authors I interview for my blog including Linda Joy Myers, Sue William Silverman, Sharon Lippincott, and Beth Kephart.
However, when I place my how-to books in chronological order, Denis’ book, first published in 1993, is still first, and because it was alone on the shelf back then, it’s likely that many of the well-read memoir authors and teachers who followed him, read his book early in their journeys.
So when a few years ago, Denis spoke at Linda Joy Myers’ National Association of Memoir Writers Telesummit I felt like I was listening to one of the giants. As it turns out, Denis is a soft-spoken, gentle man with a big heart and an ongoing passion for helping people tell their stories. Over the years he has established a network of memoir teachers who help many aspiring writers.
To learn more of the backstory of Denis’ approach to teaching memoir writing, and what it has been like to watch the Memoir Revolution unfold, I invited him to share some of his thoughts about having spent much of the last two decades totally immersed in “memoir space” and to offer his insights about how to join this movement.
Jerry: So tell us about your initial interest in memoirs. What got you started? How much did your passion to find your own story figure into the mix?
Denis: As a child, like many people who write or teach memoirs, I was a story listener. My grandparents lived upstairs from my family, and when they had visitors, I would go up to listen to everyone. I would (literally) sit at their knees on a stool, and without especially looking at either my grandfather or grandmother, I would listen attentively. In my workshops when I ask how many attendees were this kind of kid, I am always see a majority lift their hands. It’s just who we are and who I was. It’s a gene we have
So, I’ve always been passionate about personal stories. Why did something happen? How did you feel about it? How did you react and why? What did others do and say? Later, I went to the university far away and said to my friends, “You know how when you were little and your granduncles and grandaunts were visiting and you wanted to hear about how it was when they were little or when they were young and so you hung around to hear the stories.” I was genuinely surprised when people responded with “I don’t know where you grew up, but where I grew up, there was nothing like that.”
But, they were wrong. There were people like that where they lived. I have come to understand that the difference between them and me was not where we grew up but who they were and who I was.
At one point, naturally enough, I wrote autobiographical fiction and I would read from my stories to audiences. Since my tales were historical—often my history I would ask people for their story, their history. It was not much of leap from there to leading the memoir workshops that enabled people to write their stories.
Of course, I also wanted to preserve the stories I heard in my childhood and I wanted to write about my own life and have done so extensively.
Jerry: What was it like during those early years of working as a memoir professional? Before the popular surge in interest, did people look at you like you were crazy? Who were the early adopters who you met or came to your classes?
Denis: When I started leading memoir-writing workshops in 1989, people would say things like, “I have this crazy idea that I want to write a memoir.” So they didn’t look at me as if I were crazy, they looked at themselves that way. Many were apologizing for wanting to leave a lifestory behind. By about 1995, I wasn’t hearing that any more. It had become part of the culture to leave a memoir.
I did not meet any other memoir professionals until I went to the Association of Personal Historians conference in Amherst Massachusetts in 1996, I believe. Before then, the only people I was aware of who were engaged in memoir work were academics whose books I had read. It was like I was one of a kind.
Jerry: How have you seen attitudes toward memoir change over the intervening years?
Denis: As you note in your aptly titled book, Memoir Revolution, the culture that surrounds memoir writing has changed for the better. No longer do people feel that writing their stories is arrogant or inappropriate.
Jerry: You have a strong background in story writing and literature. That seems like a powerful background for a memoir teacher, allowing you to bring your interest in literature to their interest in telling their stories.
Denis: I was an English major in college. It was a wonderful way to spend those years. Reading and discussing and writing—I’d do it again! However, I suppose you could call it a rich man’s education—there was little thought to what this might lead to by way of supporting myself. I taught high school—English, French and Latin—for a few years but was never happy at that. Young people were not my natural clientele. After too many years of teaching, after writing a number of stories, I published a collection of short stories. These stories were autobiographical fiction and they led quite naturally to leading memoir workshops as I mentioned above. I received two major grants from the Maine Humanities Council to launch the Turning Memories Into Memoirs workshop. Once I began working with older people (who were the age I am now), I felt I had come home to my own people. After the grants expired, I continued to teach privately charging tuition to pay myself.
Working with people to write memoirs in this way is an English major’s dream. I am very fortunate to have been able to make a life’s work out of an area that attracted me so viscerally and so early in life.
My English major preparation has been excellent background for making me an effective teacher, coach, and editor. While I think it is possible to lead workshops without as strong a background as I have in language, I do think that a person wishing to teach has to have a somewhat significant language preparation so as to be able to converse easily about writing as a construct, as an abstract medium almost.
Jerry: Do you encourage people from all walks of life to find their stories, and write them in the best way they are capable?
Denis: Yes. I have never believed story telling to be restricted by education or experience so in that sense I do believe that anyone who is willing to put the time and energy into it can learn to write an adequate memoir that will reach its audience. People have often said to me that they had little education so they didn’t know if they could write. Education is not the demarcating factor between writers and non-writers. I would tell them something like, “Perhaps you can and perhaps you can’t. It will depend on your sense of drama and on your belief in the power of words.”
That said, all things being equal (which they never are, of course), I believe that every writer will benefit from understanding grammar, learning more precise vocabulary, developing a feel for the difference between denotation and connotation of a word, and reading voluminously—and read critically as a writer reads.
A writer who reads as a writer asks, “How did this other writer introduce a character? How did he create the foreshadowing that is so effective here? What did she do to give me such a strong sense of setting?” A writer ought to reread a book that strikes him or her as significant or impressive. A single read is never enough for a writer.
Jerry: We all have stories and yet relatively few of us have been trained to write interesting, readable books. So in order to write memoirs, we have to learn all sorts of fundamentals about what makes a good book. What is your observation about this challenge, to find a literary voice that will allow a memoir writer to express their own lives effectively.
Denis: I am a populist by inclination, but I do not, in fact, believe that everyone and anyone can learn to write an interesting full-length memoir that will reach beyond family and friends. If what you want is to write ten disconnected stories for family and friends (a laudable ambition by the way), I can help with that, but I probably will not encourage you to write a full-fledged memoir unless certain qualities are present. I have witnessed how a certain range of personality tends to gravitate towards writing an interesting memoir and can more easily succeed. Persons who are likely to succeed have the following traits: an innate sense of drama; a need to observe their life; a compulsion to share their story, a fussiness about getting the story right, a sense of the importance of what they are doing. It does not, ipso facto, include education and training. These can come later, with the process of writing.
Here’s a little more elaboration:
1. A sense of drama helps a lot. I don’t mean that success-prone people are drama queens here but that they have a sense of timing and of leaving some details in and excising others. They have a deep sense of the rightness of telling the story. They enjoy the writing and are not caught up in evaluating whether writing is a waste of time or not. So in this sense, again, I don’t believe that everyone can learn to write a story. In fact in the world, only a certain personality seeks to leave a memoir and has a sense of what a memoir can be. These are generally the people we meet up with who are actually writing.
2. Successful writers have a need to observe their lives. “Just do it” is not their motto. Instead they believe in living and then observing their lives. The kind of person who writes a memoir does not believe this is a waste of time. Instead s/he revels in this.
3.Writers have a compulsion to share their story. Even introverts who would not dream of saying something or other to a friend in private will go babbling about their personal lives via a memoir and think nothing of it.
Jerry: Do or did you feel any potential conflict between the academic excellence that many highly-trained critics hope for and the more populist attitude that everyone can start writing their memoir?
Denis: To me the great division in the world is between writers and non-writers, between people who believe in stories and those who don’t. There is a certain sort of person who believes in excellence. I don’t. I believe more in voice and authenticity and the need to speak one’s story. That said, I have encouraged many writers whose grammar and spelling were wanting to take courses in those fields. Words and their syntax are tools we need to learn to manipulate language more accurately. We would never urge a carpenter not to get to know their tools intimately! Why would we not urge writers to do the same? I see no future in telling a person s/he doesn’t need to hone his/her language skills. Certainly, the first draft does not particularly need better language skills. This is the time to get the story out, to dare to speak out. But, the second and the third write-throughs most definitely do.
The next part of the interview touches on some of Denis’ experience of teaching teachers, and the value of ethnicity in life writing.
Denis Ledoux’s website, The Memoir Network
Denis’ memoir writing blog
More memoir writing resources
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.
To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.