1. Jillian Oliver

    Jillian Oliver Member

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    Research For Writers of Personal Essays/Memoirs

    Discussion in 'Non-Fiction' started by Jillian Oliver, Jan 22, 2019.

    If you write personal essays about your childhood or teen years do you do any research? If so, what kind? I'm a beginner in the creative nonfiction genre so I'm constantly questioning during the revision process how many factual details are too many. I'm writing about a house I lived in when I was 9 and 10 so my recollection of sensory details and dialogue is limited.

    Would you try to revisit the place you lived in and interview members of your family to record past conversations more accurately? Or would you be comfortable filling in certain details creatively to improve the narrative?
     
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  2. Shenanigator

    Shenanigator Has the Vocabulary of a Well-Educated Sailor. Contributor

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    It would depend on the style of the piece and what I was trying to accomplish with the piece. For me, a memoir would require more "historical accuracy" than a personal essay, but that's just my own definition. My own definition of a personal essay is that it's one's own personal observations, thoughts, and feelings about an event, not someone else's. But, when I write them they're not meant to be a piece of journalism.

    As to dialogue...The less, the better, and the passages should be short. While it's true that I have a photographic memory, most people don't and are understandably skeptical of overly-detailed recollections of conversations. Put bluntly, if you have too long a dialogue passage or too many of them, they'll think you made it up--especially if it's anything controversial, uncomfortable, or confrontational (because those are the things most people try to forget). From there, the reader will often doubt the veracity of the entire book.
     
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  3. Thundair

    Thundair Contributor Contributor

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    I wrote an autobiography called, The Resume and I did it with notes, which I had already listed every job I had in the past, and as I remembered certain things, I would write them in that time line. I'm not saying that is the best approach because this book was written for family and never intended to sell. But you could have a look on Kindle (Look inside) and see what you think.
     
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  4. Jillian Oliver

    Jillian Oliver Member

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    When I read the book Rocket Girl, the true story of the scientist Mary Sherman Morgan, I was skeptical because there was too much dialogue. The book was written by Morgan's son, but many of the scenes felt too detailed and it read like fiction. He admitted at the end of the book that he got creative with the dialogue and filled in certain aspects of his mother's life with speculation. The book was still successful, but it made me wonder where the line is drawn between fiction and nonfiction.
     
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  5. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan (V) ( ;,,;) (v) Contributor

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    I am what is affectionately referred to as an 'unreliable narrator,' so no.
     
  6. Shenanigator

    Shenanigator Has the Vocabulary of a Well-Educated Sailor. Contributor

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    I had the same experience when I read the Marlene Dietrich biography that was written by her daughter, Maria Riva. It was an interesting book that I'd recommend for the richness in other detail, but the dialogue passages were too long to be believable to most readers. She may well have had a photographic memory, but most reader's don't, so using it selectively would have been more effective.

    Don't even get me started with that idiot who fabricated the "memoir" that managed to make it into Oprah's book club.
     
  7. Earp

    Earp Contributor Contributor

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    Becoming?
     
  8. Shenanigator

    Shenanigator Has the Vocabulary of a Well-Educated Sailor. Contributor

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    Seriously @Earp? Was that REALLY necessary?

    To answer your question, it was some holier than thou asshole who thought he'd be cute only to have it fail spectacularly.
     
  9. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    I've read a lot of memoirs and I think it's more than okay to use dialog and take some creative liberties. I don't think the dialog was exactly what was said at the time, but it's what the authors remembers. And it's important to remember a memoir is still a story. It's not a history book. It's about someone's life and the author is inviting readings into their experiences and memories of their experiences. My favorite memoir is The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham. She's actually got one chapter written in third person, and it totally works. Her book is really good and I highly recommend it. She takes some obvious and clear creative liberties with the way she tells her story, but, again, it really works. This memoir is amazing. I highly recommend it.

    I'm not sure what sort of research you would do for a piece that's straight memoir. I've sold a few personal essays which are pretty much mini memoirs and never had to do any research for them. One of my pieces was about my childhood. I didn't talk to anyone or research anything. I know my battle wounds from childhood. I just put them down on the page in a way that told a good story. Almost all types of writing boil down to telling a good story.

    I've got a new personal essay in the works that does rely on some facts as it relates to something that was in the news recently. I'm not writing a news, I'm telling my story that relates to something in the news. It's the news hook that makes my story relevant now. It's something I've been thinking about writing for awhile. Something related happening in the news tells me this is the time to tell that story. I have dialog. I'm not making anything up because I know what was said. It's probably not word for word, but every personal essay I've sold pretty much has dialog and that's never been a problem or questioned by an editor. I think staying true to your memory is what matters. Everyone knows memoirs are based on memory. I'm not sure there is really a wrong way to do things as long as you remain truthful to yourself and your personal story.

    If you're looking to read some personal essay type of memoirs, I suggest reading the Modern Love column in The New York Times. They publish a new personal essay every week (I believe on Thursday). They pieces they publish are quite different from each other, but there is sort of a tone or quality that seems pretty consistent when it comes to what they look for. I think they're really great. Just try and get a good sampling of what's out there and the many ways it can be done. Hope this helps a little and good luck! :)
     
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  10. Thundair

    Thundair Contributor Contributor

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    Memiors are skewed. IMHO
     
  11. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Have you written very much so far?

    I'm asking because I have an older middle-age friend who wrote a very extensive (and excellent ...I was totally hooked) memoir about her life as a young girl and the early years of her marriage, to give to her grandchildren.

    She said that when she started out writing, she only had a vague notion of what to write about. She said it was amazing how, the more she wrote, the more she remembered. She said at first the page was blank, then a little bit came back then a little more, till the thing became really complete.

    I think if you're trying to write about something you didn't experience (the life of your parents, or houses you lived in when you were still a baby) you'll need to do research. But if it's about YOUR life, just let it start to flow.

    My friend divided her memoir into topics, rather than making it a totally chronological story. She wrote one chapter called "Christmas," that discussed various Christmases from her childhood, that included a really funny story about a doll she'd asked for, but Santa got mixed up and gave it to her sister instead, etc. Another chapter was called "Our house in______" and it contained not only a description of the house, but told about all the things her mother had to do to keep it clean, and how they all took baths in turns in a tin tub in front of the coal fire in the kitchen, and etc. Another chapter told about the first school she attended. Another chapter (which I particularly loved) told about all the games she and her friends and siblings played when they were out in the streets or on the playgrounds. Another chapter was about her extended family and what she remembered about her aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends. And etc.

    Once she met and married her husband, the stories became more chronological, but the memoir never lost its sparkle or interest.

    She didn't include a lot of dialogue, so that wasn't really an issue. She would remember things people said, but she didn't write the entire conversation very often.

    Maybe try recalling particular kinds of events, and see what you get. For example: Christmas. What do you remember about your Christmases? Stuff like this. You don't need to take your life from A through Z in chronological order. If you can come up with an overriding reason for wanting to write this memoir, that will help. My friend wanted her grandchildren to know how different life was while she was growing up, from what it is now. So that's what she focused on. How things were different. And she personalised the story by pretending to herself that she was telling the story directly to her grandchildren. It helped give her the story 'voice' she wanted.
     
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2019
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  12. Earp

    Earp Contributor Contributor

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    Joke. If I had suggested The Art of the Deal, you'd still be laughing.
     
  13. Jillian Oliver

    Jillian Oliver Member

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    Thank you for your response. I'm trying to keep my piece short for now so I can publish it as a personal essay, and I've noticed a lot of publications won't even accept the length I have now (5100 words). If it's worthy of publication, however, I would like to write a longer memoir. How long it would be I'm not sure yet.

    I like the idea of organizing it into various topics like you say. I've done something similar with my essay, only it still follows a chronology, though chunks of time are skipped. The accuracy of the chronology is questionable also, and I've tried to verify it with my sister but she can't recall much from the period of time I'm writing about. An interesting difference between my essay and your friend's memoir is that I don't want my family to read it. Part of the reason I'm trying to get it published is because I want to share my perspective in a public sphere since it wouldn't go over well in private.

    Your response has been very helpful. Thanks again!
     
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  14. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    Again, I would focus HARD on why you want to write this memoir for the public to read.

    Is there a particular point you want to make? If so, then include only the stuff from your life that helps to make this point. It will not only make your memoir easier to write, but it will give you a way to market it as well. Unless you are a famous celebrity, nobody is interested in your life, per se. You need to let potential readers know why you think your life is worth writing about. What's the point you want to make?

    Articulate that point, write to it, and you'll be on your way.
     
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2019
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  15. Thundair

    Thundair Contributor Contributor

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    Memoirs are harder to sell. When I was looking for an agent I was surprised how many did not accept memoirs.
     
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  16. StaggeringBlow

    StaggeringBlow Member

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    Whatever you think readers will find interesting and intriguing. I would choose to focus on details that others could relate to OR details that are shocking controversial. I find that speaking your own language works best. You can tell when people are being phony in their writing just like you can when you talk to them face to face
     
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