Marion Roach Smith. 2011. The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
Hiemstra’s rule: once a project is complete, the best cites appear. Sometimes this rule follows from slow snail-mail delivery; other times it follows from inefficient networking; may be new eyes of expertise reveal a diamond in the rough. It is frustrating to find a resource that could have reduced the number of prior drafts by a factor of two. Such is my experience with Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project.
Smith offers three basic guidelines for writing a memoir:
- Writing memoir is about telling the truth.
- Every page must one single story forward.
- Just because something happens, doesn’t make it interesting (14-24).
While I have described memoir as an autobiography with a theme, Smith is addressing writers who publish for people that they do not personally know. This marketing imperative burdens every paragraph in the memoir to move the theme forward as in a novel. This is unlike an autobiography that could be written more like nonfiction. The pacing and intensity are different.
Telling the Truth
The nature of truth, accordingly to Smith, starts with writing what you know (14). Actually writing what you know is Smith’s mantra and part of the title of a prior edition of this book. She cites Emily Dickinson’s poem 1129: “Tell All the Truth but tell it slant.” For Smith, slant means writing in your own, consistent voice; your take on the world (15).
In a postmodern context, telling the truth can be a challenge because philosophically postmoderns have trouble with the idea of objectivity—one truth that we can all agree on. This might sound liberating but for the writer in means being careful to describe not only the physical context for your life but also the social and economic context. Your slant will not only define your authentic voice, but also the prospective audience that will be willing to listen to it.
In my memoir, I write to my family in my own voice. Knowing that others will be eavesdropping, however, I have hired a first-class editor and pay careful attention to her advice.
Moving the Story Forward
Smith interprets theme in terms of case studies. She suggests identifying your theme (what’s this story about) and thinking of your story as an illustration of this theme. This change in focus is helpful because your life is no longer the story; it is the illustration, a case study of the theme. This lifts a burden from the author because, as an illustration, exact details are less important than advancing the theme (23).
At a minimum, this attitudinal shift towards theme and away from autobiography simplifies both the creation of a reasonable outline and the editing of the drafts that follow.
Everything that Happens Isn’t Interesting
“thinking of memoir as laying out only a few cards from an entire deck, one at a time, each card moving forward the one story that you choose to tell.” (32)
Obviously, what is interesting in a memoir are the events in your life that are consistent with and advance the theme of your book. As someone with a terrible memory and lacking the gift of gab, this guideline seems unduly burdensome. Smith finds solace in focusing on telling big stories with little details.
Smith offers some fascinating details about how attitudes about dogs have changed in recent years. Back in the day, dogs used to mind the territories of their owners, often posted in the backyard to keep strangers from jumping the fence at night. Trips to the vet were rare and pet food consisted primarily of leftovers from dinner. No longer. Today, dogs are treated as members of the family with their own healthcare plans, toys, and exclusive treats. Socially, dogs provide a focus of neighborly interaction and, if you are single, a reasonable alternative to online dating.
In this vein, Smith recounts the story of the death of a neighbor’s dog and how that played out for neighborhood sisters (39). The little details of this encounter offer insights more interesting than a description of the big story of lonely people living in isolation. Her slant on the big story is to notice and write down the defining characteristics of this encounter (a woman wearing her husband’s swim trunks) and a trip with a dead dog to the doggie hospital (40). While a dead dog looks to me like garden fertilizer, Smith’s story provides more insight into today’s culture.
Marion Roach Smith
Marion Roach Smith is a graduate of Saint Lawrence University in Canton, New York and worked for the New York Times. Her books include: The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair, (Bloomsbury, 2005), Another Name for Madness, (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and others. She has written for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, The New York Times Magazine, Prevention, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, and The Los Angeles Times.
Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project is a fascinating and helpful book of interest to authors who take memoir seriously.
 http://marionroach.com. @MRoachSmith.
Marion Roach Smith Writes Memoir
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