Memoir’s Primary Argument: Making Sure Your Memoir is Universal, Not Just Personal a blog by author, artist and teacher, Mary Carroll Moore
I’ve always loved this quote by Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: “The most powerful strand in memoir is not expressing your originality. It’s tapping in to your universality.”
That’s confused a lot of my students, though. What’s universal have to do with anything? This is a story about me, my journey, my pain and discoveries.
Yes, in the early drafts, it is. Your conversation is a bit like the character from Stranger Than Fictionwho talks to himself in the mirror. I mean this in the best possible way: we have to talk to ourselves to get the true story on the page. If we bring in invisible readers too soon, to member will lack authenticity.
But there is a point where the memoir stops being just about you. Where the reader is brought into the conversation. As A.M. Homes said, “Memoir is about more than you.”
Many writers never reach this juncture. They are content to write their stories just for themselves or their close circle. It’s enough to get the story on paper, never mind making it more than just a personal chronicle. These are traditional memoires,in the old-fashioned sense of a legacy to pass to others who know you. You feel it’s important to have a written record of what happened. Not just to you, perhaps, but to your family members. To keep the story alive.
That’s absolutely good. But there’s another option if you want to go further. It’s absolutely necessary if you want to publish your memoir today, in my opinion.
I think there are three steps. First, I believe the writer needs to orient towards a snapshot, a certain pivotal period of time, that changed his or her life in a big way. Once you find that pivotal moment that your story orbits around, it’s easier to reach out from it to find which storylines are part of the memoir–what might have happened years before which led to this moment, what happened years later that came as a result.
Second, I think the writer needs to choose where to place the weight of the memoir. Some memoirists write about the time leading to the pivotal moment; some write about the aftereffects–the living with, surviving from, reconciling or not. A memoir can often be built on any of these, or sometimes all of them, with the event in the middle.
Once you find that pivotal moment that your story orbits around, it’s easier to reach out from it to find which storylines are part of the memoir–what might have happened years before which led to this moment, what happened years later that came as a result.
Most writers feel they have to include all of their childhood, maybe twenty, thirty, forty years of smaller but significant (to the author) events. Otherwise, how will the reader understand the big change? This is where the storyboard comes in so handy. Memoirists create two or more storyboards, or maps of their storylines, then learn to weave them together like a braided rug.
But the most intriguing step, the one that fascinates me, is discovering the primary argument of the memoir. This is the key to its universality, and best described through example.
Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen, is about mental illness, being confined to an institution. To me, it’s primary argument is What is sanity, truly? The argument is not stated outright, not for a while, but it’s clear even in the opening scenes. That’s what draws us in, keeps us reading. The situation is personal, the argument leads to the universal.
H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, has three storylines: her training of a hawk, her father’s death and her relationship with him, and the author T.H. White’s falconry. Complex story, so I’m guessing at the primary argument, but it is tied to what drew me in: what we can control, what we can’t, and how love appears within that empty space.
Writers often wonder what backstory to include, and where to put it. The argument tells you. Only backstory that elucidates it is needed. If Kaysen included stories of trips to the circus as a young girl but they didn’t illustrate the question of sanity, they’d feel off to the reader–the writer stepping in where she wasn’t wanted.
This takes incredible restraint. Because everything is fascinating to us, who lived it.
Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance, talks about the “frame” of a memoir. Which window will your memoir look out of? This is another way of getting to the primary argument and one I use in the workshop, because it’s also fascinating. Shapiro’s frame concept forces the writer to focus the story in some direction. Unlike an autobiography, it’s heading towards a universal meaning.
This week, I’ll share a writing exercise, a taste of what we’ll be exploring in my online memoir workshop on July 31. Set a timer or your phone alarm for 20 minutes and begin a list of the most important events in your life, so far. No censoring, no editing, no explanations needed, just it get on paper. Then begin to ask yourself if any are related or linked. Do they have a common argument, or theme, teaching you something about life?
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The journeys of the Fortune Seekers Final 2
I have really enjoyed Glennis Browne’s book and I feel relate well to what our ancestors went through to come out to New Zealand. To have to leave their homeland and to make a new life in an uncivilised country. To try and make a living on the gold fields, this is where my grand mother was brought up. Great work Glennis July 2021