The Magic of Memoir

View from Oakland Marriott with San Francisco in the distance.

“For a memoir to become loved, it must reach the heart of others; it must make a difference.”

Linda Joy Myers, PhD, and Brooke Warner, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir (2015), She Writes Press

My healing draft began two years ago in Oakland, California at Magic of Memoir 2016.

As I stared out floor-to-ceiling windows before the event began, an epiphany: that I had once been a teenager on the streets of San Francisco, and was now decades later standing in a penthouse conference room overlooking that city, about to learn how to best write the story of how I survived.

I was excited to find the genre-specific conference, and even more-so after reading the organizer’s bios. Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers know memoir. In fact, Myers is known as the “Memoir Guru.”

Magic of Memoir at Oakland Marriott.

The two-day event included sessions covering the Five Key Elements of a Successful Memoir; How to Map Your Memoir; Excavating Your Truths; a panel on Why We Write Memoir; an intensive on mastering scenes; and an exercise in applying all we had learned.

During a break between sessions, for the first-time ever I shared with Myers what I was revealing in a memoir, and that my main concern would be its effect on my two sons. They were motivation for writing the story.

She pointed out that they were grown men now and might better understand, having been teenage boys (and fathers) themselves. This revelation would help in confronting how (and why) I became absent from their lives. Our brief discussion would end with “Rob, write your powerful story!”

At the conference I’d learn writing a memoir that matters would require more than just an account of an unfortunate experience. I learned the difference between memoir and auto-biography, one a story from a life, the other an entire life story; and that it was possible to write more than a single memoir if the experience were unique or unusual and out-of-the-ordinary.

I also learned the story must have a happy ending if at all possible. Nobody wants to read a book with an unhappy ending! Or anything that reads like a diary or journal (my original draft).

It wouldn’t be until much later that I would consider the essential elements including characterization, scenes, sensory details, takeaway, and most-important, structure. I was too distracted by the emotional challenges that surfaced. At times I was distraught. In the midst of catharsis.

Merriam Webster defines catharsis as “a purification or purgation of the emotions; a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension; elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression.”

Freewriting a healing draft and rewriting into coherent chapters became more cathartic than I imagined (or prepared for). I was able to recognize unrealistic expectations and absolve myself from years of guilt. Realizing no teenage boy should ever have to sell himself in order to survive became my catalyst from shame. Once I was able to make that admission there would be no other truth I’d be unable to confess.

Being bullied and molested as a boy and led into sexual relationships with adults was not the norm and had altered my life (and psyche) with significant consequences. Somehow, I’d managed to pull myself from an unhealthy state and decades later would begin writing the story to better understand what had happened.

Not just for myself but also my sons.

Following Magic of Memoir, I began listening to National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminars.

These valuable monthly discussions also served as pep talks. We Have No Secrets with Judy L. Mandel, The Writing Journey and the Inner Critic with Judy Reeves, Write the Silence with Sheila Bender, and many other titles that spoke specifically on the craft and its dynamics.

It took great courage to share with a writer’s group read and critique what I had purged alone at my laptop, but I was anxious to move forward. I canceled the first time, driving around the meeting location again and again, until conceding I wasn’t ready.

The following week I challenged myself, and again for the first time anywhere revealed a past I thought I’d left behind. But as I struggled to read it became apparent the pain and trauma from that time in my life were still very much alive, suppressed as much in my heart as in my mind.

At this point the freewriting had left me feeling damaged, but feedback outside the writing included much-needed validation that what had happened was indeed wrong. Sharing the truth with those unfamiliar with the story was also somewhat liberating.

“Look for a memoir-only group. It’s hard for memoirists to be in a group of fiction writers who may critique the characters and events harshly, forgetting that the writer is exposing him or herself and writing the truth. It’s best to have a group with a leader that understands the deep emotional effects of writing memoir.”

Linda Joy Myers, PhD, Journey of Memoir: The Three Stages of Memoir Writing Workbook (2013), She Writes Press

I valued critique received from a group of mostly fiction writers, but realized a need for sharing this part of the process with others who write and understand the genre.

The feedback at three critiques strayed from the writing and included judgmental reaction to characters, but one is not able to change the actions of individuals in a non-fiction work. Despite, I appreciated the feedback and improved the story greatly following suggestions, learning read and critiques are an invaluable aspect of writer’s groups.

This reaction to characters in the story led me to assess their portrayal and I began to expand depiction by including more empathy.

“In all imaginative writing, sympathy for the subject is necessary not because it is the politically correct or morally decent posture to adopt but because an absence of sympathy shuts down the mind: engagement fails, the flow of association dries up, and the work narrows.”

Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story (2002), Farrar, Straus and Giroux

At first, I was conflicted because some of the characters (i.e. abusers) in my story were definitely evil. In Ethics of Empathy, Wendy Staley Colbert writes it is “not possible or reasonable” when the protagonist is underage and the antagonist an adult. Like most victims I blamed myself and excused my abusers.

It wasn’t until I free-wrote what had occurred between myself and adults, that I realized as a boy and as a teenager I had no control over those who used my innocence to fuel their selfish, unnatural, and unrealistic fantasies.

This was the magic of memoir at-work.

Traffic on San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.