Writing Conference: Tip for Memoirists, memoir as literary non-fiction

by Jerry Waxler

The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group (http://www.glvwg.org/) held its annual meeting April 27-28, 2007, and I found all sorts of valuable writing insights, that I want to share with memoir writers.

As a memoir writer, I am writing about life experience, so it was with eager anticipation that I attended a talk “Writing from life experience” by keynote speaker Gary Fincke, professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, and author of a book called “Amp’d, a father’s back stage pass” about rock and roll bands – not just any rock and roll band, but his son’s. Fincke attended more than 60 concerts, and then wrote a book about his experience. This is a style of reporting called Immersion Journalism. Years ago I read a pioneer in this genre: Tracy Kidder’s “Soul of a New Machine,” in which he moved into a computer lab, and wrote about their development process. The book launched not only Kidder’s career, but also launched an entire genre of what has become known as literary non-fiction.

As a writing teacher and a writer, Fincke thinks a lot about how to write what you see. In his genre of literary non-fiction, he doesn’t have to be a distant observer. He includes himself in the picture. This style of journalism bumps up and begins to overlap with what memoirists try to do. We show the life we lived, a life in which we were active participants. Memoirists are all immersion journalists. We inhabit the world of the protagonist but when we try to report on what we see, there is one difference from journalism. We observe life not through our present eyes, but through our memory.

One of the most interesting tips Fincke offered about how to write about life experience was so simple. It was to “look again.” The first time you see something, you only see the surface. When you look again you see it deeper. Another great piece of advice was to describe things specifically. He didn’t just describe the backstage at every or any rock concert. He described a particular one, the particular smells, the beer cooler, the ratty sofa. And then he said, “Don’t just talk about what you think. Readers want to see and experience things for themselves.” It was all great advice.

Since Fincke will be publishing his memoir early next year, I asked him what are the differences between memoir and journalism. He said one key difference is that in memoir, you want to return to the state of mind that you were in when you originally experienced it. That strikes me as being a significant point.

When you write about something you are observing now, you have more control over your state of mind. I can look up from my computer and describe the two book cases next to me, four shelves each, the uneven way books are lined up, some on top of each other, and the top of the cases piled high with recent acquisitions. I could focus on one book, a chemistry book sits snugly on the shelf. I have not referenced this book for years, while the ones I’m using for my current projects lie heaped in piles on the floor. Because I’m in the present writing about the present, I can dance and weave, playing around all I want with the details, and my feelings about those details, But when I write a memoir, I have to rely on memory. Memory is a strange animal. It can be a beast that snarls, and wants me to remember the hurt first, filtering all facts through the lens of my feelings.

When I studied chemistry in high school, it was not my A subject. I feel myself walking in the hall after class, fearing the other kids understand the material more than I do, and afraid that means they like me less. Am I remembering it because it’s a “real” incident or because in that time, I was always worried about whether I was liked? Now, I look again. This time I see the teacher showing us a supersaturated solution, a clear liquid. He threw in a grain of sand and from the clearness exploded beautiful blue crystals, somehow both jagged and orderly. That transformation from the possible into the real fills me with some subtle hope. Beauty is sometimes hidden, and it just takes a grain of sand to reveal it.

When Gary Fincke’s memoir is published next year, I will look at his two books and see how his observations differ. In Amp’d, he wrote as an immersion journalist, using his current powers of observation to describe his son during those concerts. In the other, his memoir, he observes through the filter of memory. These differences in the way we report reality are issues every memoirist faces.

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