Memoir Writing: Find the Love

I think, in memoir, writing about love is the hardest and most important aspect of the work. Sure, some people show love in pretty typical ways, so that’s not too hard to write about, but a lot of people have trouble showing love to their family members, and that’s where memoir writing becomes difficult. In order to be fair to the other people in our lives–parents, siblings, family friends, relatives–we have to take the trouble to understand how they tried to show us love, even if they didn’t succeed very well. As a memoir ghostwriter, I’ve had clients that really want to portray certain characters from their families as downright bad guys. They don’t understand that in a novel this makes the character a cardboard cutout, but in a memoir, the result is worse: it makes the author look unsympathetic. One of the keys to writing a memoir is developing a profound level of sympathy for the other characters in your story. Sometimes this happens before the book gets written and is the catalyst for the memoir, but oftentimes this happens during the memoir-writing process. When we, as memoirists, can finally start seeing the gray areas in life, and in human behavior, that’s when the book starts getting good.

 

I’ve been noticing this a lot in my own work, lately, where I’ll write about a situation from my childhood, and get my own feelings and actions in the story right, but realize that other characters, usually my mother, are in the background. I’ve realized, as I write this, that the fact that she doesn’t come to my assistance in a crisis, offer sympathy, or give advice strikes some readers as a problem that makes the story no longer about me, but about my mother, and it makes them sad, where it was actually supposed to make them laugh. Some readers don’t think about the mother figure at all, while others focus exclusively on her, and, to them, it reads like a story written by either an unforgiving narrator or a narrator that’s in complete denial of having had a screwed up childhood.

When a reader confronts me with this perception, it really makes me think. I don’t think I had a screwed up childhood, but I do think we all had different childhoods and different mothers, and those who are used to a different type of mother than mine might not understand why mine seems perfectly normal to me, and that could be disturbing, and worse of all, destroy the humor that’s supposed to be the focus of the story. So, I take it as part of my assignment, as a memoirist, to look carefully at the way my mother showed love and try to explain that to the reader, even if she isn’t the focus of the story. When a background character’s behavior is odd enough to distract from the main story, that’s the time to find the love. You don’t have to get all mushy about it, but find the love, otherwise it reflects badly on you, as a writer.

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