When many hear about someone writing their memoir, they often think of a famous person at the end of their life. But the truth is that anyone can write one at any stage. In fact, as memoir expert Patti Miller explains, they can write many.
We spoke with her recently in episode of our So you want to be a writer podcast. And here were just some of the things she had to say on the subject:
On whether memoirs need to contain something dramatic or momentous:
“Not at all. In fact, I've said to writers many times that it’s not what’s happened to you, it’s how you see it that makes a good memoir, because people could have had all sorts of incredible adventures and still write terrible memoirs about them.
“People can have just experienced their backyard or wandering the bush. I always think of Annie Dillard who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim At Tinker’s Creek. She didn’t do anything. She just hung out by the creek. It’s one of the most beautiful memoirs. It’s really about how you see your life, it’s your awareness, your consciousness of being. It’s not about the drama of sensation of life. It’s about the experience of being in a life.”
On why writing heals and helps – and why it can't just be processed just in your head:
“I think it’s to do with language itself. I think that making sentences is an act of making meaning, and it’s an act of integration. If you’ve had some kind of disintegrating experience; something dreadful has happened to you in your childhood or you’ve experienced terrible divorce or a horrible accident, then making sentences about it by its very nature is an act of integration and it’s an act of making meaning. You have to choose consciously the words to say it.
“When you’re speaking and thinking about it you don’t actually have to make those conscious artistic choices about the language. Making those choices is actually empowering. It means that you are the one who’s powerful because you are constructing the reality of the experience on the page. I think it’s both freeing, putting it on the page and it’s empowering, so I think that’s why it’s healing.”
On what separates a good memoir from a not so good one:
“I think there are several things, but the first one, obviously, is the quality of the writing. If the writing is beautiful then it really doesn’t matter what you’re writing about, because the writing gives you a beautiful experience anyway.
“I think what lifts a memoir up into another realm is where you feel that you’re not just reading about this individual person’s life, but you’re reading about the human condition – what it’s like to be a human being. For example, the memoir that won the Premier’s Award last year in New South Wales, Boy, Lost. It was quite a dramatic and sensational story about a little baby boy snatched from his mother’s arm and she didn’t see him again for another 34 or 35 years. So, it’s a dramatic story, and beautifully written, but it becomes a mediation on the nature of memory and the construction of the self and what to do with grief and all of those kinds of things, which apply to all of us.
“So it means that although it’s a very individual and dramatic experience, which most of thankfully haven’t had, we still can relate to it because it’s about dealing with all of the things that we all have to deal with in universal terms.”
The difference between a memoir and an autobiography?
“My definition is that an autobiography is a story or account of a whole life, from when you were born and including everything that you think is important that has happened to you, whereas as a memoir is an aspect of a life. You can write about your year in Argentina, or you could write about bringing up your deaf son, or you could write about the breakdown of a relationship. It means that you can write any number of memoirs because they’re limited by time, or place, or theme, or story, whereas an autobiography will cover a whole life. Really one autobiography should do you.”
On whether you need to be older to write a memoir:
“That’s absolutely not true… to me a memoir is about your experience of being in the world and that’s valuable whether you’re 17, or 35, or 83. It doesn’t make any difference what age you are, it’s your experience of being.
“I’ve worked on a couple of memoirs of young people in their early 20s writing about things like anorexia or drug addiction, their lovely young voice writing about their experience of being is just the most enlightening and extraordinary thing. If they had waited 40, or 50, or 60 years to write that it would have changed entirely in their minds.
“A young person writing is wonderful for all of us, but particularly wonderful for young people, because they can then relate to that youthful point of view, that youthful energy. So write, young people. It’s the best thing that you can do. You’ve got an audience of other young people.”
On how memoir differs from fiction:
“I think in many ways it’s the same because you’re trying to construct a convincing world on the page. To me, whether that world has actually existed or it’s on planet Zogg, it’s still has to be a convincing world. All of the skills of writing always apply. So, in that sense, in the sense of the skills of writing and all of the things that you need to be able to do to convince the reader that this is a emotionally interesting and convincing world still apply.
“But, in terms of how you make each, I think Mandy Sayer’s distinction is very good. She says that memoir, you have the life and it’s about subtracting until you get a shape. With fiction or novel you don’t have anything and it’s about addition until you get a shape. I think that’s quite a different process in that way.”
Tell your story!
Learn directly from memoir expert Patti Miller with our Life Writing course.