Some Criteria of a Completed Memoir
May 3, 2011
Years ago I got into one of those nasty conversations with a person that I do my best to avoid. He heard that I taught memoir. And he made the assumption that, in memoir, anything goes, and in memoir, all a writer does is go on and on about their lives in any way they want to.
I disagreed. I said that, though some people might choose to write that way, that memoir, as a form, can be discussed and described and that we can tell the difference, quite easily between students memoirs that “work” and those that don’t yet work.
He was skeptical about my capacity to make that kind of judgement. I told him that I was in the business of making judgements like that, and so were editors.
He said that any criteria to judge memoir had to be implicit — that you could just “feel in your guts” whether a work was finished or whether it needed more work. I told him that most memoir writers, like most other writers, took their work through many revisions, and in each revision, the work developed complexity, that it is impossible for us to get our effects the first, second, third, perhaps even the tenth time round. And I told him that I had a set of criteria in my head that I used to judge my own work, and that of students, as we passed through the stages of our work.
He thought this was a lot of hogwash, that I evaluated my own and other people’s memoirs on the basis of gut instinct and he challenged me to write down the criteria I use to determine whether my work is complete.
I’d culled a set of criteria from the many memoirs I’d read as I was preparing to write my first work. I hadn’t codified them in any way, but this presented me with the opportunity to do so. I don’t set these forth as the final word on memoir; I offer them merely as a tool that might be useful. I review this list when I’m, say, about halfway through my process. I surely don’t look at them at the beginning. And I check them at the penultimate stage of the work. Indeed, I’ve found that when an editor asks me to make changes, it’s because I haven’t paid close enough attention to one or another of the items on this list. So here they are.
1. A good memoir tells a good story; it deals with the issue of cause and effect in life either overtly or covertly; when things make no sense, that is grappled with as well.
2. A good memoir “puts you there”; it is vivid, and specific. It is cinematic, in some sense – the reader can “see” what’s happening.
3. A good memoir shows an awareness of time – the time during which the experience takes place; the effect of the passage of time; how time helps us see things in new ways. There is emphasis on both personal history, and on the historical context in which these events take place. The memoir keeps the reader abreast of when the events are occurring.
4. A good memoir treats the interrelationship of events and feelings. It describes what the person felt then, what the person feels now; what the person knew then, what the person knows now. It describes events, feelings, reflections, and the significance of events. (It doesn’t merely recount events.) Oftentimes it uses images and metaphors and allusions to express the inexpressible or the difficult-to-express layers of meaning.
5. A good memoir indicates an awareness of the patterns and repetitions in a life.
6. A good memoir has a consistent set of images; its images aren’t trite; they’re original, and they’re use of them in the narrative enlarges its scope.
7. A good memoir is written in an authentic voice. One way to achieve authenticity is to avoid oversimplification, generalizations, cryptic and elliptical treatment of events. There is something unique, fresh, and new about the way the experience is recounted. It can’t be vague, trite, general, or generic.
8. A good memoir is precise and clear. If part of the story is hazy, or ambiguous, the writer indicates in some way that it is ambiguous because life is, and not because the writer has failed at making the piece clear.
9. A good memoir is detailed: it tells/shows what the experience of the life has been; it doesn’t simply tell the life: it reveals the life.
10. A good memoir focuses on a set of meanings or themes, and it “cuts to the chase” so that the reader knows precisely what the work is about. (The work can’t be about the life in general.)
11. A good memoir is written in such a way that someone who knows absolutely nothing about your life can understand it. This is difficult. It means “creating characters” out of the people in your life using the techniques, often, of fiction. Writing explicitly about ourselves and the people we know is often more difficult than creating fictional characters.
12. In a good memoir, there can be no coyness, nothing withheld from the reader. If you introduce a subject, you must describe it fully, or tell the reader you cannot write about it. If there is a layer of meaning that you choose not to discuss – and this is your right – and if it forms part of the cause and effect of the narrative, you must find another way to show the reader why things happened the way they did.
13. A good memoir must be internally consistent in terms of its story, its style, unless shifts in style indicate changes in the life or in insights about the life. If there are huge discrepancies, they must be accounted for.
14. In a good memoir, there must be some shift, some change, in the understanding of this life’s trajectory. If there is stasis, it must be accounted for. Memoirs written “in media res” – in the middle of something – need not seek a false resolution. But some shift in understanding seems imperative.
15. In a good memoir, the characters must be fully realized: they can neither be idealized nor vilified nor trivialized. If they are, this must be accounted for. You cannot be the saint in your own memoir: you must be real.
16. In a good memoir (as in every piece of writing), every word, mark of punctuation, space break, is there by choice not by change. And this means that by the end of the process, the writer has made a conscious decision about every element of the work.
17. In a good memoir, there must be some relationship between form and meaning.
18. A good memoirist remembers that the point of view in a memoir is, of necessity, the unreliable narrator but a credible witness to her/his life’s story. (Every “I” is unreliable in some way.) So a good memoir must inform the reader about what is conjecture, assumption.
19. A good memoir deals with desire – with what people want: with what they do to get what they want; with what they want helps them or hinders them; with how people in the memoir don’t want the same things and what that means.
20. And, as in all good storytelling, a shorthand way of saying all this is that attention is paid in equal measure to the “who, what, when, where, and why” of the narrative.