How will this global pandemic story play out? For most of us, this is the question for now. We stare off and wonder, thinking we have little control. If this is you, I have hard-won advice for this odd moment in our lives: Write. Specifically, write what you know.
If there are two phrases used more and understood less in writing than “write what you know,” and “show don’t tell,” I cannot think of them, and yet they are the two that will provide you some control right now.
Writing is a great portal to self-discovery. Specifically, writing memoir provokes the kind of discovery that often eludes us. As anyone who has experienced trauma will tell you, healing begins in having words for the experience. Name it and we begin our way home.
At the beginning of the pandemic, when I read Gwyneth Paltrow’s suggestion that this would be a great time to learn a new language, I spit my tea right onto my computer screen. No one I know is capable of conjugating in Italian as we scramble to survive. What we can do, though, is share our humanity across the virtual back fence by writing what we know. It’s not that writing memoir will fix what’s wrong. But writing what you know will give you the kind of insight that begets control, and if you show us how you got some control, we might find ways to get some, too.
Why write now?
Why write, you might ask, when all I am going to discover right now is my fear?
Maybe. But let’s start with that fear. What fear is it like? What is familiar about it, and why is it familiar?
A few mornings ago, I awoke to a note in my own handwriting by my side of the bed. I am a writer, so this is normal. With notebooks tied to the gearshift of my car, in my purse and in the bathroom, I am forever scribbling. This note read, “Don’t flip the car keys to her.” Reading it, I smirked and snorted, since the “her” in that note refers to my inner child. I have an unsteady relationship with her, at best. Not a bit woo-woo, I live more on the delicatessen plan of spirituality, having taken small bites from a Lutheran Church beginning, Episcopalian girls school curriculum and a Universalist-based university at which I ingested the requisite 1970s menu of Carlos Castaneda, Taoism, Buddhism and the dawning of New Age.
But, as I focused on the note, the panic that produced it at 4:30 AM made me think, “You’re right, Marion. There’s a scared kid in there, and she’s not the one to ask to drive right now.” But I had been doing just that, so I was terrified.
Not flipping her the keys makes sense, not only because of the peril to my psyche, but also, since I’m a writer, because she is not a reliable narrator from which to write. What she does present is a perfectly good topic to write about. Each of us is experiencing this through the lens of our singular pathologies. Unexpressed, this leaves us alone and trembling. Examined, we are offered some control.
In 25 years of teaching, editing, coaching and writing memoir, I’ve worked with many people from what we now call the #MeToo movement. These folks lost a lot, not the least of which was their voice. They were told not to tell, that they wanted it, or liked or deserved what was being done to them, and that if they told they’d lose even more. Now, given language for what happened, these writers begin to take control of where that story goes next.
What is memoir?
Memoir is what you know after something you’ve been through. It requires that the writer change, and that we get to watch that change. This is the definition of write what you know, that phrase that everyone tosses around but few bother to explain. What you know is how you changed. Along your way to your transcendence, you show, not tell, your way through those moments of change.
How do you show us? In scenes. Like beads on an abacus, your scenes merely need to add up to show us how you learned what it is you now know.
Oh, you’re probably saying now, no one wants to read about me.
You’re right. We do not want to read about you. We want to read about how your experience reveals something universal that we either do not understand, that is weighing on us, or that is beckoning our wonder. When I read a book by someone who ice picks her way up a frozen scree in Nepal, I do not do so because I plan to do it too. I read it to expand my expectations of human potential, refill my nearly empty well of courage and sharpen my flinty sense of determination. I read it to feel and feed. I read it to change.
How to write memoir
So, no, do not write about yourself. Write about the universal as illustrated by the personal. Give a name to those transactions you are now having over your masks, eye-to-eye with the check-out person at the grocery. Write from the lost sense of touching one another. Write from a vanquished—or renewed—sense of faith. Write from your knees with tears in your eyes or laughter in your mouth.
Why? Because we need to figure this out together and the shared universals are thrumming in the air like a tune waiting for some John Prine lyrics. Go on: Supply the words for what this is. Share them. We need them now more than ever.
If it’s not about you, what is it about?
Here is how to determine that. Use my little writing algorithm, offered to you in lieu of foreign language lessons in these perilous times. It goes like this:
It’s about x as illustrated by y to be told in a z.
It’s about something universal to be told by some deeply personal tale in some length—blog post, essay, op-ed or book. For example:
- It’s about how mercy is a process that must be worked daily, as illustrated by forgiving my abuser, to be told in a personal essay.
- It’s about how dogs do things for people that people cannot do for themselves, as illustrated by the joy our dogs are creating in this time at home, as told in an op-ed.
- It’s about how grief is a mute sense of panic, as illustrated by my response—and transcendence through that response—to my mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, as illustrated in my first book.
Perhaps your anxiety dipped when baking in the cupcake tins of a grandmother who survived the 1918 flu and two world wars. That’s a laying on of hands like no other. Throw open the window and shout it out. Or better yet, write it down.
Share your humanity
We are not looking for big truths here. We are looking for small ones. And that is where memoir rules. There, amid our shared scatterbrained sense of panic, or in the indomitable hope of a Zoom seder, are expressions of humanity that bond us across every possible divide.
In a recent update to a book I wrote on how to write memoir, I edited out phrases like, “check your Blackberries,” swapped the word, “smartphones,” and added new observations on how to write what you know. It has been updated before, though in nine years in print, one of the book’s tales that needs no refresh goes like this:
If you’ve ever visited Woodstock, New York, you know the place is populated by a distinct kind of person—artistic, flamboyantly individualistic. Perhaps per capita, there are more poets and potters there than anywhere else on earth. I now teach online, but when I taught in person, many came to my class. Some years ago, three young women from Woodstock taught me more than I taught them. All weavers, they were a pair of sisters and the sisters’ best friend.
The first night, as I was asking what the class was going to write, the women—sitting in order of older sister, younger sister, and best friend—each replied that they were there to write the story of the recent death of the younger sister’s husband: For one another, not for publication, it was how they chose to honor his life.
And I imagine that the world kept spinning and they kept talking while I wondered how I was ever so fortunate to be asked to assist in such a purely noble effort. For one another, not for publication, because it needed to exist. The very idea stayed in my head until the following week, when they came in, each with her version of the death.
But they had switched seats, the two women no longer cushioning the young widow. This time, she was last of the three, as first her sister read a piece about taking the call that reported the young husband had been accidentally killed on the job. The best friend wrote of standing in the sun at the memorial, looking out over what would need to be the future for them all.
And then the little sister read. Maybe she was 30, married for only a few years, deeply in love with her husband, and after I tell you the next detail you will never forget it, perhaps even thinking of it most nights, as I do, all these years later, when I climb into bed with my husband.
The night her husband died, her sister stayed on after everyone else left. At bedtime, she asked her little sister how he had held her at night, and gently cupping one hand on her shoulder and the other over her hip, just as he always had, they fell asleep.
Feel what just happened?
That’s the kind of experience that memoir provides.
Marion Roach Smith is the author of four books, the most recent of which is The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life (Grand Central Publishing). She teaches memoir online at marionroach.com.