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Non-Fiction and Memoir Writing: Getting Personal

I asked my pal, Anna David, to swing by the blog today, because I often get memoir and non-fiction questions - as exhibited on Tuesday - for which I'm not totally qualified to answer. Anna has a fantastic new book out this week - FALLING FOR ME, which I gobbled up in about one day, all about her attempts to figure out who she was, what she wanted out of her life, and how she was going to get that. Below, she weighs in on how much to reveal in your writing, when to push yourself and when to draw the line. 

I’ve always taken “write what you know” very much too heart—arguably too much to heart. From when I first learned to write stories, in sixth grade, I began making them about the people I know (my girl-hating sixth-grade History teacher, the appropriately named Mr. Mein, was a prominent character). I majored in Literary Writing in college and my final project was a short story about a dysfunctional family that was just like my own; only the names were different.

Then I started working at magazines and learned how to do non-fiction: to interview people and weave together what they told me in order to create a story. I liked building material based on The Truth, as opposed to the more amorphous, subjective act of telling stories based on my own perceptions of my experiences. After years of reporting stories, I found my way back to my own experiences again when I started publishing essays. None of this was planned—I was just a writer far more concerned with paying her rent than with the career trajectory she was on. 

I decided to write my first novel on a whim—when I noticed that other people I’d worked with at magazines were publishing novels and decided if they could do it, I might be able to as well—and my first one was a story that flowed out of me without an outline or really much thought. Not because it turned out that I was some sort of savant, mind you, but because it was basically my story; only the names were different. My second novel, which was based entirely on an investigative piece I did for Details magazine, followed the same philosophy. Again, only the names were different.

Now my memoir, Falling For Me, is about to be released and even though it’s not a straight-up memoir—it follows me following everything Helen Gurley Brown recommended in her 1962 bestseller Sex and the Single Girl—it’s without a doubt the most personal material I could ever possibly share with the world. And all I can think is: Why on earth did I agree to do this?! There are things in this book—about my family, about the way I’ve struggled in relationships and about the depths of despair I’ve sunk to—that I don’t even feel comfortable telling people I hang out with all the time, and here I am telling anyone with $10 to spare! I don’t know how other writers experience this but somehow, when I’m working on a book, it feels like no one will ever read it—that the pages may as well be my diary—and then, suddenly, it’s out there in the world and I feel vulnerable and frightened.

But I also believe that my subconscious knows what it’s doing—that it’s brought me to this way of doing this career because, for reasons not entirely clear to me, I need to purge my life as part of some sort of healing and growing process. All writers need to be tough—we experience enormous amounts of rejection and have to read derisive comments about our work from people who hide behind their computers—but throwing it all out there without the “Oh, it’s just a novel” protective bubble requires, in my opinion, another level of toughness. Alligator skin. Because, while I may have once thought that no one could be meaner than Mr. Mein, turns out he had nothing on some of those people floating around GoodReads. Especially when this time, none of the names—including, most relevantly, my own—are different.

Reader Comments (2)

This is a great post. I really like how you're relying on your subconscious, or intuition, in order allow the flow of your work rather than getting hung up on others' perception of you. I believe that bravery and honesty will take you far.

I recently read two very similar memoirs, but I had opposite reactions to each of them. After reading one, I was disgusted and drained. After the other, I was uplifted, inspired, energized. I struggled to find the key distinction between them, and I think that it's transformation. I think this element is essential to any book, fiction or nonfiction. I often see things in food metaphors, so I see it as the difference between tasteless, dry flour and warm, buttered bread. I can tell by this entry that you definitely have it-- you write as a wise, experienced individual with much to teach. I look forward to reading your works.

October 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRaquel

Thanks for this post and for sharing your experience of the writing process. I will look out for your book the next time I'm in US - or maybe put on Christmas list for US-dwelling brother to get me!

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara
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