Blog entry No. 5
For this post, I've invited Joy Castro, one of our finest, most versatile writers of literary nonfiction, fiction, and criticism, to be the first guest in what I hope will become an intermittent series of invited writers, all of whom will lend us their wisdom and insights on/about a variety of matters related to the art and craft of creative nonfiction.
Here's a short overview of Joy's piece, The Memoir as Psychological Thriller.
Because memoirists often find themselves overwhelmed with material to write about, Joy's advice below is, I believe, particularly useful to readers of this blog.
In her piece, Joy maintains that memoirists could benefit more by organizing and focusing their drafts around urgent, unanswered questions, particularly those that are troubling and mysterious, the ones that are still unanswered. By challenging their narrators to explore these kinds of questions, memoirists are significantly raising the stakes both for themselves and their readers.
For more detailed commentary and examples, I invite you all to read the complete essay. Joy's piece will be up until the last week of July.
The Memoir as Psychological Thriller by Joy Castro
Two key obstacles can daunt the would-be writer of memoir, but one efficient solution can dissolve them both.
First, memoirists often find ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of our material. A life, after all, is a vast territory, especially if one has lived it with a writer’s sensibility—the sensibility, in the words of Henry James, of one “on whom nothing is lost.” Whole novels, as we know, have famously been devoted to a single day in the life of their protagonists. How much more overwhelming, then, to think of inscribing our own real, full lives. We know we must select a thread, an arc, a through-line. But how?
Second, memoirists face a market already glutted with life-writing, and often, the memoirs cramming bookstore shelves are about lives more glamorous, tragic, or otherwise outsized than our own. When readers are routinely offered stories of stardom, heroism, extreme survival, and so on, what would impel them to choose our own modest tale?
The solution to these twinned obstacles comes in the form of the urgent, unanswered question about the self. This question is the key, the hook that pulls us through the process of writing the text. It can lead us forward into the draft and provide an organizing principle when we revise.
Identify the troubling nodes in your life where you’re genuinely mysterious to yourself, where the reasons matter and the stakes are high. Don’t shy away from the hardest questions, the most painful or even shameful ones—the ones that haunt you, that keep you up at night. These questions speak to the most intimate core of your identity.
Your questions might be, Why does the scent of cedar make me want to cry? or Why did our mother leave us? or Why do I keep marrying essentially the same man?
For me, the two linked questions that drove the writing of my memoir The Truth Book were 1) Why did my father commit suicide? and 2) Why did a near-stranger, a new academic acquaintance, tell me that I had no personality? I sensed that this acquaintance (however socially challenged he might have been) had tapped into something meaningful, disturbing, painful, and true, and that the mystery of my apparent lack of personality was tied in some way to my father’s death. When I sat down to draft, I did not know the answer to either question. Moreover, I did not know if writing would reveal any answers. I was desperate for understanding—desperate not to meet, as so many children of suicides do, an end like my father’s—so the process was one of inherently high stakes.
What I discovered—and what I now advise my graduate students in memoir—is that writing your way into such questions—and leaving aside all the lived experiences that don’t answer them—automatically gives your work unity, shapeliness, and a sense of something crucial at stake.
Creative writing teachers often talk about “the stakes” in any given piece—What’s at stake? Why does it matter?—because readers crave narratives in which something is truly at risk. In compelling memoir, it’s the writer who risks, the writer who has something to lose and much to gain.
Urgent questions can be used during the drafting stage or during revision. I use them in the drafting stage. In drafting my manuscript, I included only those scenes, images, and insights that spoke (directly or indirectly) to my two key questions. If an episode didn’t help answer them, I didn’t even draft it. In this way, I was able to work very efficiently, writing my way into urgent questions that were, for me, matters of literal life and death.
Luckily, I did find answers; my book did come to closure, resolution. If The Truth Book convinces readers “that the writer,” in the words of Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story, “is on a voyage of discovery”—one of her key criteria for excellence in personal narrative—it’s because I really was.
If you’ve already drafted a manuscript, the urgent, unanswered question can also be helpful at the revision stage. Which core questions surface in the text or emerge as you reread what you’ve written? Winnow away all material that doesn’t address them.
When you’re tracking the answer to a genuine mystery about yourself—one that baffles and perhaps even hurts you—then your memoir becomes filled with suspense. No less than a good thriller, your memoir turns into a page-turner. Suspense, after all, as bestselling mystery author Elizabeth George explains in her craft guide Write Away, is simply “that state of wanting to know what’s going to happen to the characters and how it’s going to happen to them.” Readers become invested in your story when the stakes are high and the ending unknown. When you probe your experience in an intimate, honest, vulnerable way, readers respond.
Since The Truth Book appeared in 2005, I’ve published several short memoir pieces, each determined by an urgent question to which, when I sat down to write, I didn’t yet know the answer. (For example, the essay “Grip” was driven by the question Why did I, as a 21-year-old mother, tape one of my used shooting targets above my infant son’s crib?) Each piece thus had a tight focus and high stakes. Each piece had mystery, urgency, intensity. If the meaning of an episode or image from my life was already clear to me—if the moral of the story was plain—then I didn’t write about that material.
To tap the stakes of your own memoir material, pose an urgent, meaningful question about yourself, your life—one to which you genuinely don’t know the answer. Write your way into the question with courage and honesty, including what’s relevant and leaving aside what’s not. In so doing, you’ll create urgent, focused, shapely work that will appeal to readers (and agents, and editors)—because we are all mysterious to ourselves. As writers, we don’t need to be film stars or survive extraordinary circumstances to write compelling memoir, because as readers, we are all on genuine voyages of discovery, and we long for writers who invite us into theirs.
Joy Castro is the author of the thriller HELL OR HIGH WATER, the memoir, THE TRUTH BOOK, and the essay collection ISLAND OF BONES. She teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. You can visit her blog at http://www.joycastro.com
Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
Blog entry No. 5