Melissa Hart on Writing Memoirs

I was lucky enough to see Melissa Hart speak at Willamette Writers's monthly meeting. Here are my notes from the meeting. (Melissa's a fast speaker, so my notes are spotty, but still worthwhile.) I felt like I learned a ton of useful information even though I currently write fiction.


Melissa Hart
Writing Memoirs
  • “I got started at age 16 writing bad cat poetry. Would you like to hear some?”
  • The Assault of Laughter
  • Gringa
    • In 1979, my mother came out as a lesbian, and (as was common at the time) lost custody of her children as a result.
  • Short memoir in magazines: love this genre.
  • Contrary to what lots of people are saying, memoir is not dying: People want to read about other people’s lives. 
  • Ariel Gore: “A memoir is to journalistic autobiography as a movie based on real-life events is to a documentary”.
  • Memoir has narrative arc: rising action, climax, falling actions.
  • Form: Essay, social or political commentary, slice of life vignettes (look up Orion magazine Brian Doyle: amazing page long memoir that will knock your socks off).
  • It must teach us something. Offer the reader a gift. Examples:
    • 21st century foraging: giving us adventure tales of learning to eat what is outside our house.
    • another way the river has: the gift of traveling down the columbia river in a handmade boat.
    • growing up rich
    • growing up in poverty
    • relationship to candy
  • “90% of the submissions he receives are too personal. it’s too bad your grandmother died, but what are you going to tell the thousands of readers who grandmother’s die every day?” you need to teach the reader something.
  • you must tell readers how to think about a given subject. 
  • a.j. jacobs: immersion journalism. 
    • “my year of living bibically.”
      • his year of living literally as close as possible to the bible
  • natalie goldberg: wrote: old friend from far away.
    • memoir doesn’t have to be a “one time” thing. you can write about your relationship to coffee, or to the men in your life.
  • you don’t have to be old to write a memoir. you have what you need by the time you’re 12.
  • example:
    • candy freak
    • one man’s owl: biologist writes about an owl he adopted that 
  • exercises to do:
    • what's one thing that makes you unique: (my teen years were something like Lindsay Weir: a mix of math team and stoners.)
    • what's one thing about which you are passionate about: (freedom to pursue my dreams.) 
  • a glut of memoir right now about: cancer, alzhemiers, moms dying.
  • surprise is what grabs an editor. fill your writing with surprise, whether it is long, short, or just the query letter. 
  • memoir must start in the midst of conflict. you can always flashback. or you can ignore the past.
    • first page, first paragraph, first sentence
  • setting: you must tell us about the session, the tree that fell on the roof, the dust on the wall.
  • the cure for depression: immerse yourself in the sensory details of the present moment: what do I see, what do I smell, what do I feel, what do I hear?
  • this must be in your writing. 
    • make a table with five columns, one for each sense, and one row for each chapter.
    • make sure that each chapter engages every sense of the reader.
  • fun, fun, fun: you must have characters and dialogue.
    • don’t make people up.
    • but you create the people: your mom, your dog, your friend.
    • what are these people like? what is their body language like? what is their way of speaking? what do they do when they get nervous? how do they dress? (this stuff all engages the reader, and it’s fun.)
    • “what my hair style means to me.”
  • dialogue
    • no one wants to read 300 pages of narration.
    • but you can’t remember what your uncle said 40 years ago before he went to vietnam.
    • you have to have dialogue.
    • the dialogue has to be true to the person, as much as possible.
    • dialogue reveals character. and it’s important for moments of revelation.
  • surprise
    • do the following exercise: what's one surprising thing about your life: (I blew up a car.)
  • give us scenes / anecdotes.
    • give us scenes with character, dialogues, and setting.
    • but it can’t just be scene after scene: then you might as well write fiction.
    • the reflection is what makes it a memoir.
    • and we need theme
      • the theme is usually:
        • my family is crazy and i survived
        • my dog is crazy and i survived
        • sickness is crazy and i survived
      • the theme must be throughout the work
  • simile and metaphor is OK
  • but hyperbole: a little is OK if you are writing humor.
  • there should be narrative arc on every page, in every chapter, and for the book as a whole.
  • writing process
    • free writing
    • shitty first draft (annie lamott)
    • make yourself uncomfortable: wear a too tight dress, and write until your piece is done, being desperate to take it off.
  • after you’ve finished your rough draft, ask yourself:
    • what’s at stake for my narrator and other characters?
    • where is the victim in my work and how can i delete?
      • (no one wants to read about victims. we want to read about empowered people.)
  • how do you get published?
    • for short length: look for submission guidelines. read them. they are what the publisher likes. and exactly how they want you to submit (hardcopy, electronic, etc.)
    • for book length: pitch at writing conference. it could be portland, or you could go anywhere in the world.
    • sha.com: 
    • most editors and agents want to see the full manuscript.
    • look for interview on website about self-publishing
  • questions
    • what are the legal ramifications about writing about living people?
      • they should not be able to be identified. change names, regional information, etc.
      • volunteered from audience “give the character a small penis” - they’ll never own up to it.
    • but won’t your parents be identified?
      • your parents will certainly know. but you don’t want to hate on them, even if estranged. i legally changed my last name so that my father couldn’t be identified.
    • but what about vernacular?
      • use a particular syntax up front a few times to establish them, and then let it go.
      • a choice word here and there.
      • a few sentences up front, and then let it go. otherwise you exhaust readers.

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