I have little patience for memoirs and personal essays where every second sentence contains qualifications, such as “but maybe the wallpaper was yellow, not brown” or “I don’t remember why I decided to slap my sister”.
My suggestion is to tread lightly in this territory and discuss memory’s puzzling workings only where it is crucial to the narrative and/or when you can say something fresh on the topic.
Helen Garner’s investigative journalism is a fine example of such writing.
In her true crime book, ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’, for example, some of my favourite parts are where Garner questions her own motives for following the murder story and her biases in how she interprets the case, because these passages illuminate the complexity of human psyche and make us, the readers, question ourselves too.
It may ease the pressure a bit if we, as writers, admit that such concerns are actually a part of the story we are writing, rather than something to deal with on our own, in guilty secrecy.
In fact, sometimes, when written into the story, our dilemmas can become interesting part of the work, deepening it greatly.Of course every writer knows, or at least so I hope, that reading for writers is as important as the writing itself.Yet, in creative non-fiction, reading may play even a more significant role, because – as mentioned last month – works published in this genre are so diverse, playful, surprising and elusive to definition, that the best way to understand creative non-fiction is by experiencing it.For example, my memoir ‘The Dangerous Bride’, was set during a troubled time in my life when my marriage was unravelling.To fit the narrative’s drama I underplayed the more organised aspects of myself and emphasised my confusions and inconsistencies.To follow on from last month’s post in which I sang the praises of creative non-fiction, I’d like to share with you some things I have learned about working in this often misunderstood genre (after much trial and error).Here are my top tips: The most obvious, and least sexy, tip is that to engage deeply with creative non-fiction you have to read as many books in this genre as you can.Finally, read the most adventurous current practitioners, such as Geoff Dyer, Maggie Nelson and David Shields.If you haven’t read these writers yet, I’m really jealous of you. Craft your ‘I’ with great care, as if you were a fictional character. It is commonly understood among creative non-fiction writers, and also dedicated readers, that the ‘I’ in the work doesn’t equal the author, that it is a version of her, shaped to fit the story.Such simplification is particularly common with bad memoirs where authors often rush to offer redemptive endings to their sometimes harrowing life dramas as if every difficulty can be ‘fixed’.Instead, I suggest, stay with the ambivalence and uncertainty if this is what’s true to our experiences.