Please welcome guest author Alana Saltz with a heartwarming article on writing memoirs.
As a genre, memoir has been growing exponentially each and every year. More and more people are finding the strength, courage, and determination to write about their experiences in a compelling and literary way. The success of memoirs like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Augusten Burrough’s Running With Scissors (aff links), which were both adapted as feature films and released in theaters worldwide, help demonstrate that the world is slowly beginning to embrace the genre.
I’ve been a fan and advocate of memoir ever since I first learned what a memoir was. At only twelve years old, I already had an interest in someday sharing stories from my life with the world. I felt like I had something to say, and as much as I enjoyed making up stories either from scratch or based on things I’d been through, having the ability to tell my own story was very appealing to me.
As an adolescent, I struggled with severe anxiety disorder and depression. Knowing that I could write about the difficult, frightening, and remarkable events that occurred helped me get through some very tough times. I was comforted by the thought that eventually, I would make what happened to me and what I went through matter. I could help other people suffering from mental illness by sharing my story, the way I found comfort in reading the stories of others. I’ve carried that hope and goal with me for many years, finally leading me to pursue an MFA in writing to help me write about my life in the most powerful and readable way possible.
That urge and desire to write about my life has been part of me for a long time. It feels natural and right. But many people have been swayed away from the idea of writing a memoir for a number of reasons, many of which are inaccurate or unfair.
First, people might not think they’ve been through anything meaningful or important enough to write about. I’m of the belief that any story can be meaningful and important if it’s told in an engaging and relatable way. What really matters is the heart of who you are as a person and what universal themes and messages you can extract from what you’ve experienced. Memoirs aren’t just personal stories – they’re personal stories that illuminate larger issues that many face and experience.
Others might worry that memoir writing is an act of narcissism or navel gazing. On the contrary, I think memoir is a natural, authentic, and altruistic form of writing. To openly and honestly share your experiences, stories, and vulnerabilities with the world in the hopes of reaching and connecting with others is one of the least narcissistic endeavors I can imagine. It’s something to be admired, not condemned.
Finally, I know a lot of folks who are concerned with the personal ramifications of writing a memoir. My own family and friends have asked me why I couldn’t just write my story as fiction or use a pseudonym. I tried to explain to them that I wanted to stand by my story and what I went through. I wanted to put my name on it. To me, it was worth any potential issues to be able to say that what happened was true, to connect on a genuine and real level with my readers.
I did worry about what a certain family member, my father, would think when he saw what I had written about him. I tried my best to be fair in my portrayal of our relationship and allowed him to see the manuscript when it was finished to correct any misrepresentations I might have made. To my surprise, his response was positive. Despite writing critically about what happened between us, he wasn’t angry with me. In fact, my memoir actually opened the door to an important conversation that I’d needed to begin with him for a long time.
I have nothing against the desire to write fiction based on life experiences. I love fiction and write fiction too. Novels can capture the realities of life, the world, and humanity in very authentic and moving ways. However, there is a special power and awareness that comes when one reads a work of memoir. The knowledge that the story you’re reading is a recreation of actual events that someone has gone through connects and resonates in a different way.
So, if you’ve got a story to tell, consider writing it as a memoir. There are certainly pros and cons, but if you think your experiences might be enhanced or deepened by presenting them as fact, not fiction, it’s certainly worth considering. It will take a lot of strength, courage, and determination to write about your own life in a way that will resonate with others, but in the end, it really is worth it.
About the Author: Alana Saltz is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Her essays have been published in Role Reboot, The Urban Dater, HelloGiggles, and more. She has an MFA in writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and recently completed a memoir about her struggle to overcome anxiety disorder and depression. You can visit her website at alanasaltz.com or follow her on Twitter @alanasaltz.