Fiction is the willing suspension of disbelief--the reader knows they're being kidded. The novelist's job is to make them forget this. With memoir, the reader needs to believe you're telling the truth. As a child I was told nobody would believe me so I pretended to be clumsy to explain away bruises, I got myself a girlfriend, I made everyone think I was okay. Ironically, to tell the truth, the memoirist must use the tools of fiction.
Maggie & Me: Coming Out and Coming of Age in 1980s Scotland is my memoir of that decade. I lived in Newarthill, a small steel-working village not too far from Glasgow. Maggie Thatcher was hated by my house and that village, but I found her glamorous and, when she survived the IRA bombing, attractively indestructible. My stepparents, the red-faced raging Logan and the darkly glamorous Mary the Canary, taught me about cruelty. My best pals, Heather and Mark, taught me about love. And always, there was Maggie--the decisions of one woman changing the life of one wee boy.
I now teach a memoir masterclass for the Guardian & UEA. Here are some of the lessons my students seem to find most useful.
1. It's Your Story
That's right--not your Mom's or your Dad's or your sister's or your brother's or your son's or your daughter's. Your memoir is your memory of your life--you're not saying "it's the only truth;" you're saying "it's my truth." And, because it is your story, nobody else can write it. Get started!
2. Memoir is not Autobiography
"An autobiography tells the story of a life, while memoir tells a story from a life," says Gore Vidal. So don't tell us everything--tell us a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. It could be the story of a relationship, a journey or an illness. A story about a pet, a person or a house. Tell us a story; don't just spew inventory.
3. You Are Just A Character In Your Own Story
Because it is all so personal, or should be, it can be hard to hear criticism from yourself or others. So, think of yourself as the central character in your story and all your relatives/friends/people as other characters. This takes out some of the heat providing a cooling critical perspective.
4. You Are Not Perfect -- Really.
Allow yourself to be imperfect--not an idealized you where you never do anything embarrassing, know all the answers and inspire universal desire. If you're going to expose other people's flaws you better share your own too. Also: Nobody believes that anybody is perfect. Not even you.
You didn't always know where you were going, so don't just take us from A to B without explaining C or D and what about E? Uncertainty and doubt provide tension, and readers need that.
6. In the Particular We find the Universal
I think it was Frank Cottrell Boyce who said the more specific books are, the more universal they become. For example: loss. It's too big to tackle meaningfully. We've all lost someone or something. Big losses, small losses, it's all loss. But we all experience it differently so resist making sweeping generalizations. Instead, be particular. When my parents divorced, my mom moved out but my dad stayed put. For weeks after I kept walking down the hill after school to what my mom now called "your dad's house." I couldn't accept losing my bedroom--the Paddington Bear curtains, the cowboys and Indians on the wallpaper, the big red roses by the window. But I had to.
7. Find Your Voice
Your voice is your style. You know you're reading Jane Austen without looking at the cover. You can spot a Spielberg film or a Westwood dress. The key to finding your voice is simple: Don't write words you wouldn't say. Don't try to write like a writer.Your voice is hard to find but you know when you've found it because everything after that is easy. Sort of.
8. Show Don't Tell
Show: Tiny droplets are beading on the can of coke on my desk and we're out of ice.
Tell: It's the hottest day of the year.
9. Catharsis Happens (even if, like me, you think you know it all).
Often when I'm writing about my past I find myself crying or laughing. A couple of times I've jumped up from my desk in my shed and vomited in my garden. Writing it down is different from talking it out. Stuff moves when you write. You'll be surprised.
10. Cut, cut, cut.
Leave things out. Don't tell us everything. Often you can cut the first paragraph. And the last. Maybe this should only have been nine points.