On Tuesday, October 12, 826 Valencia hosted another installment of our Adult Writers’ Seminars. This time the workshop’s topic was memoir-writing. An audience filled the 826 writing lab to hear a panel of published memoirists share their insights about crafting personal stories.
The discussion was guided by moderator Joe Loya, whose own memoir tells the story of his time as a bank robber and his subsequent incarceration. Loya was joined by a stellar crew of talented authors including writer/artist Belle Yang, whose most recent book, Forget Sorrow, combines personal and family stories in the form of a graphic memoir; noted novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman, who published a collection of personal essays concerning her experiences as a mother; Rachel Resnick, author of multiple nonfiction books on romance (or the lack thereof); and Tony DuShane, whose book Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk is a hybrid fiction/memoir based on his childhood experiences as a Jehovah’s Witness. The authors were also joined by literary agent Katherine Boyle who provided some perspective from the publishing industry. The diversity of the panelists’ backgrounds made for a lively and enlightening conversation.
To begin, each author described the organizing principals or motivations that brought them to writing memoirs and, as one might expect, these too were highly diverse. For example, Yang said she chose to write in memoir form as a way to connect her personal experiences with her Chinese ancestral history, while Waldman stated she began writing personal nonfiction on a blog. Resnick said that she simply needed to write to pay the bills. Whatever their motivation, all of the panelists made it clear that there is a distinct emotional power found in the memoir genre. Moreover, they echoed the idea that while memoirs are as varied as the people that write them, good memoirs use the personal to illuminate some more profound or universal truth.
Diving right into craft, the panelists stressed the need for constant rewriting above all else. Yang told the audience that she worked on her book in some form for fourteen years, at one point taking a full-length prose manuscript and transforming it into graphic form. DuShane discussed taking three years to shape his personal experiences into a coherent story arc, and Waldman described her rewriting process as creating a “salad of destruction,” with manuscript pages spread out all over her floor. The consensus was that aside from compelling narrative wrought through naked emotional honesty and universal insight, a good memoir is made through tireless sculpting and rebuilding. If you think you are totally finished, rewrite it again.
In terms of actually getting your memoir published, Katharine Boyle’s advice was to “do your homework” by reading what others have already written on your chosen topic and, often, your best bet for getting published is to find a specific niche that hasn’t yet been covered in memoir form. While Boyle and the other panelists were not reluctant to describe the difficulties of the current publishing landscape, they stressed to the audience that the most important thing to worry about is not your book’s marketing platform, but that you tell your story in an honest and compelling fashion.
826 would like to give sincere thanks to all of the participating panelists for donating their time and expertise, and to the audience for attending and helping support 826′s free student programming.