The biggest challenge facing today’s aspiring memoirist is little different than the biggest challenge facing the memoirist of twenty years ago when memoir underwent its contemporary resurgence: Distraction.
The only thing that’s different is the form of distraction. Once it was television, videos, TiVO, DVDs—in another era, radio, perhaps for the aspiring writer. Name your poison. There’s always some vice vying for your attention. Now, it’s the smart phone and social media—the constant distraction and ability of that combo to lead you away from fine writing and original thinking.
In basic writing terms, we’re talking about the ever-present snarky tone of voice rampant throughout the internet, which can lead memoirists, and all writers for that matter, to think that snark is a catchy/cool, sustainable voice with which to garner an audience. I beg to differ, especially in memoir where it is essential that the voice of the narrator be authentic—and snark, while funny for one second, gets old quickly, and doesn’t convince readers they are in the presence of a thoughtful writer plumbing his or her personal depths for universal meaning—which is what readers of memoir, at root, are seeking.
But on top of that, there’s the challenge to overcome the appalling use of grammar, syntax, language, spelling—the plethora of invented styles of writing on the internet that may include incorrect spellings, interminable run-on sentences, a complete lack of understanding of the role and use of punctuation. Really, if you want to be a serious memoirist today, you can’t write like that. You must learn the craft of writing—how vocabulary, spelling, sentence structure, punctuation, and the art of story telling work. And you must practice these skills, so that you might manipulate them like a master. In a world of fast news, rampant opinion, and sloppy writing, it’s sometimes hard to remember that there are actually traditions in writing and communication that exist for the simple idea of mass comprehension. These traditions must be learned by any aspiring memoirist.
In terms of message—your content—the challenge for the memoirist today is that you must disconnect long enough to figure out something original to say. Yes, knowing the trends and passions of the reading public can be helpful, but as a writer who wants to be published, you have to be centered in your singular truth. Copying the last retweeted idea isn’t going to cut it.
You, dear memoirist, have to find your ideas. Disconnect. Think independently. Feel your way into your own thoughts. Figure out what things mean to you. Read widely. Be quiet. Allow the gift of alone time to teach you what is original. You can’t be quiet and thinking deeply with an electronic device in your pocket, hand, purse, car—you name it—pinging and ringing. Original thought does not come out of a smart phone.
Original thought for the memoirist comes out of a place of self reflection about complicated personal experience, and you can’t hear that original thought if you are in constant relationship with a device loaded with applications, the bulk of which exist to distract you from—for some—the frightening prospect of being alone with yourself.
The challenge is big for the memoirist today—everyone out there can write a memoir, and many of them are, and because of the shifts in publishing, everyone out there can publish that memoir. That doesn’t mean the memoir will be read. For the memoirist who actually wants an audience—outside family and friends—the task is to spurn distraction, listen for original thought, and having mastered the craft of writing, record that which is wholly your own.