Writing the Memoir Paperback – 13 Jun 2002
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The topics were thorough without bogging down the book: You will get valuable tips on how to describe things with all five senses, how to write scenes, how to move around on a timeline, how to tie your writing into "the bigger picture" and so on. There are also ethical and legal topics Barrington touches upon: when to use names, what constitutes libel, what to consider if you're writing about living people, etc.
Moreover, there are several writing exercises at the end of each chapter to help you develop ideas. The exercises are nice because they make the book flexible. If you don't do the exercises, you could read the book in about 2-4 sittings and get a good overview of the memoir. If you invested the extra time to do the exercises, you would be able to hone your craft to a much greater degree. It's really up to the reader...
Barrington's aim in this book is to inform readers about memoir as a specific literary form and to teach the skills necessary to writing good memoir. The first chapter is titled "What is Memoir?" and attempts to answer that question for the reader. Barrington compares the literary memoir to other similar forms, such as autobiography and personal essays. She makes a distinction between "memoirs" and "the literary memoir," and gives examples of both to support her claim. The chapter introduces the elements of literary memoir that she will discuss in greater depth throughout the book, such as plot, voice, and moving around in time. The introductory chapter gives the reader a cursory understanding of memoir as a narrative form and prepares the writer to begin writing memoir immediately, without having to read the entire book first.
Barrington draws on her own experiences as a memoirist throughout the book, a method which serves to persuade the reader that Barrington has the authority to teach this form of writing. For example, on page 55, she describes how she came to write memoir in the first place: "I started "Poetry and Prejudice," a seventeen-page memoir, as a narrative poem-one which grew longer and longer, but never satisfied my need to speculate about the events it describes. The leap into prose finally allowed me to expand the retrospective voice and turn it into memoir." It occurred to her to use this new story, broken up, as dividers between the stories in her book. Barrington's description of her struggle in writing Lifesaving helps the reader by showing that writing memoir is not an easy task.
Writing the Memoir is intended for people who already have an interest in writing this literary form. Barrington does not attempt to persuade readers of the merits of memoir over other literary genres, such as poetry or fiction. The book is designed to be a "stand-alone" guidebook for memoir writers. The book is structured so that each chapter builds upon previous chapters, teaching beginning writers the skills they need to be successful. It moves from idea generation, through form and structure, to getting feedback and submitting to publishers. On the other hand, the book is not so basic that experienced writers will be bored. Barrington weaves discussion of craft into discussions of memoir as a literary form. For example, in chapter five, she discusses scene, summary, and musing, and specifically addresses both groups of writers: "I have noticed that many beginning writers use summary to the exclusion of scene and dialogue, while writers who are experienced in other literary genres are often leery of musing, since they have been well drilled in the `show, don't tell' school" (81). She then defines scene, summary, and musing, and gives examples from other memoirists.
Throughout the book, Barrington uses sidebars when she wants to define something that doesn't fit neatly into her narrative. A pale gray background sets off the sidebars and makes them easy to distinguish from the rest of the text. She also uses a sans serif font for the text within the sidebars, which further sets them off from the rest of the text, which is printed in a serif font. Some of the topics that she includes in sidebars are an explanation of first person narration, a definition of narrator, and examples of verb tenses. Perhaps the most useful parts of the book are the exercises that are included at the end of most chapters. The exercises in the first chapters often ask the writer to generate lists, which is a good way to get started, before actually beginning to write. The exercises in later chapters ask more of the writer, both in terms of actually writing and in topic, since presumably he has gained experience during the process of going through this book.
Next to the exercises, the most useful part of the book would be Barrington's discussions of the dilemmas raised by writing about one's own life. In her chapter on truth, she deals with the issues of memory, loyalty, and taboo, all of which must be faced when writing memoir. Barrington argues that emotional truth is more important than factual truth, which I agree with when dealing with details such as specific dates, dialogue, etc. She also says "telling your truths-the difficult ones and the joyful ones and all the ones between-is a big part of what makes for good writing. I think this is true as long as one doesn't confuse factual truth with universal truth.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is considering writing memoir. The narrative is compelling, but easy to read. The reader will gain a good understanding of memoir as a literary form, and Barrington's generous use of examples from such writers as Annie Dillard, Alice Walker, and Virginia Woolf will provide an extensive reading list to those who wish to study the form. Writing the Memoir will guide the writer in generating original material about his life and then forming that material into focused, thematic stories.