Will Boast's standout memoir Epilogue is about the death of his mother, father, and brother. Both a wrenching exploration of grief and a moving story of remembrance, it's a must-read. Boast shares five rules for writing memoirs.
As I suspect many writers do, I took the long way round to writing a memoir. It took me nearly three years of trying to cram my subject matter into a novel manuscript before I understood that the story I wanted to tell would fit better into nonfiction. When I finally I came to the memoir form, I had only a vague notion of how such a book might be put together. It took me another five years to finish the manuscript that became Epilogue. As provisional and context-specific as they may be, here are a few lessons I learned along the way:
1. If fiction is the art of invention, memoir is the art of selection and arrangement.
For whatever reasons, many readers and writers believe that writing a memoir is easier than writing a novel. It’s all happened already, the thinking seems to go, so all you have to do is put it on the page. If only! As I once heard Joyce Carol Oates remark, beginning a memoir is like having a dump truck pull up beside you and tip a couple tons of garbage on your head. Writing about your own life or family, everything suddenly seems relevant, from the most dramatic events to the smallest ephemera. I know I’m not the only writer to have drafted hundreds more pages than I needed, writing out whole episodes—many of them revealing, earth-shaking, of the utmost vital importance, etc.—that I would eventually just cut, realizing that they didn’t add to the narrative emerging from the morass of pages I was accumulating. I think it took me a year, at least, before I stopped suffocating under all the stuff that goes into memoir and started to find, among the debris, the struts and beams that would form the structure of a story.
2. Memoir is the most flexible of forms, out of necessity.
Chronology is perhaps the least useful organizing principle in memoir. As Sven Birkerts argues in his The Art of Time in Memoir (one of the few good critical texts on memoir), the relentless “and then and then” method of storytelling is not only particularly numbing in nonfiction, it tends to obscure the essential truth of an experience. Life rarely, if ever, bothers to present us with a tidy series of events that, with a steadily increasing sense of tension and/or mystery, suddenly resolves into understanding, triumph, release, etc. Life, in other words, is not much of a storyteller. It’s the memoirist’s task to create connections—emotional, thematic—between episodes. For me, this meant splicing together two parallel timelines, echoing and rhyming events in the recent and distant past, showing the repetition of patterns of behavior over years and decades. This taught me something rather chilling: A life is often made up of the same mistakes made over and over again.
3. Sympathy is perhaps the trickiest thing to manage in memoir.
It’s often said of the best memoirs that they “read like a novel.” Putting aside the chauvinism for the novel and against the memoir implied here, I would more or less agree: I’m often hard pressed to distinguish between the pleasures of reading a good memoir and a good autobiographical novel. But the memoir, of course, has one very important feature: We know that the author lived the experiences he writes about, so we worry both about the “character” on the page and the actual person in life. The temptation for the writer, then, is to milk that sympathy and concern for all it’s worth. There are two sorts of memoirs I really can’t stand: those that make the writer out to be heroic and perfect, and those that make him out to be tragic and debased. I believe the reader responds best to an author/narrator/main character who conceives of himself modestly and honestly, who is not asking for admiration or forgiveness but merely trying to tell some provisional truth. To quote Mary Karr, “The memoir’s antagonist has to be some part of the self.” If we don’t see the writer struggling with his better and worse nature, proceeding sometimes nobly and sometimes blindly and foolishly, then there’s no conflict and, in the end, no book.
4. Memory is mysterious and fallible, but not as much as we fear.
The question I’ve heard most on book tour: “How did you remember it all?” There can be a tinge of both wonderment and skepticism in the question. How, after all, do we remember, from a distance of decades, the small details and exact words of dialogue that eventually form a scene in a memoir? Well, I know that, for me, there are certain moments and conversations that are scorched into memory. I couldn’t forget them if I wanted to, and I’ve wanted to forget many of them. They are not so much part of the past as they are the ongoing present, following me through each new experience, illuminating and darkening life in equal measure. (This is the nature of trauma—it can never stay in the past.) But, okay, yes, there are some moments I remember fuzzily, for which I had to consult family members, friends, and old letters. But these, of course, are also fallible sources; very few of us remember or record events perfectly and without bias. The salient metaphor for me is archeology; excavating the past is like finding an old clay pot at a dig, piecing it together one shard at a time until it starts to suggest a whole. A memoir aspires to be a recreation of events not a transcript, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get very close to the truth indeed. My biggest surprise on book tour: Meeting up with old friends and classmates who remember things just the way I do.
5. Memoirs, unlike novels, don’t end.
This is the strangest, eeriest thing about nonfiction. Unless there’s a sequel, the characters in a novel don’t go on after the last page. In memoir, they do—those who are still with us anyway. And so this most self-aware, self-reflexive of forms keeps on commenting on itself, attaching new codas and footnotes to each chapter, and subtly re-writing the words you’ve labored so hard to make definitive. Epilogue is in part about discovering, back in 2004, family members I never knew existed. In the course of writing the book, I thought I’d uncovered all the secrets my family contained. Then, in 2013, just as I was finishing the book, another new family member found me. I hope to meet her, for the first time, some time in the next few months. A new epilogue to Epilogue? The story, no matter what I do, keeps on changing.