Thursday, November 5, 2009

"There is nothing about a good memoir that is soft or easy."

Over the summer, I noted that Madeleine Blais, a journalism professor at UMass-Amherst and a very good writer, has a new memoir: “Uphill Walkers." I read a section in my BU class where she writes from a young child's point of view about learning of her father's death. The news came from an unreliable source -- her older brother. Back then, no one bothered to explain death and dying to little kids.

Here from Fiftyshift, a lively Western Mass blog for women over 50, Blais talks about writing the memoir. (Check out the rest of this fine site while you're at it, even if you haven't shifted to 50.)

At the heart of memoir is a conundrum: while writing about the most subjective of experiences, your own life, you have to find the most objective of frameworks. Consider how a simple list of the names of your childhood friends might be enough to move you to tears, but that won’t work for readers. Readers need you to supply context, physical description, character sketches, the whole range of verbal wizardry, if they are to come close to feeling as you do about your material.

“You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arm, like a drunk, and say, ‘And then I did this and it was so interesting,’” as Annie Dillard has written.

The very word, memoir, has a dainty, precious, scented sound, like boudoir or bon-bon, and that there is something admirable and old-fashioned about the often slow-paced explorations practiced by writers of memoir. Most memoirs are about events that occurred in dusky venues long ago and would be doomed to remain obscure but for the author’s perverse insistence to the contrary. Memoirs are more moon than sun, more ocean than mountain, more, in some ways, feminine, at least according to certain stereotypes.

But do not kid yourself.

There is nothing about a good memoir that is soft or easy.

It is not a genre for the faint of heart.

Check out the rest of the site while you're at it, even if you haven't shifted to 50.

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