I can’t count the number of times I’ve told folks I make stuff up for a living. Depending on who I’m talking to, I may substitute a different S-word for “stuff.” Shock value, y’know; it’s important sometimes. So, how do I square the idea of writing memoir with making stuff up? Could those two things be any more incompatible?
I dunno, maybe. What I do know is that good writing is good writing, whether the practitioner is relating something biographical or something else, perhaps something brewed up in the dark corners of a twisted mind. Either way, it boils down to storytelling. The same techniques apply to both: one must gain the reader’s attention and trust, create mental images and invoke enough senses to link a reader’s life experience to that of a character–real or invented.
Well-written fiction draws a reader in, and it doesn’t matter if the universe he or she is drawn into is a fantasy or is as real as Aunt Minerva’s root parlor. One does that by constructing a multi-sensory word picture detailing the feel of the clear plastic seat cover on the sofa, the sounds of the cat coughing up a hairball, and the smell of burnt popcorn in the microwave. Those are all mental triggers that work equally well in fiction and non-fiction. Using them puts readers in the room, grimacing at the couch, shifting away from the cat, and pinching off their collective nostrils. C’mon, we’ve all experienced burnt microwave popcorn. In that regard–at least–we’re a team!
Show me the rule which says you can’t reference bad smells in a memoir. Piffle! Anything that puts a reader in a place is fair. The more skillfully one does it, the better. If you’re discussing a difficult decision made by a desperate couple during the Great Depression it really doesn’t matter–in terms of the writing–whether those two people actually existed or not. In the world created by the written word, the writer’s goal should be to make readers join that couple, huddle with them for warmth, their tummies growling in unison from hunger, as they conspire to sell great uncle Jeptha down the river. (Hey, the mob pays, even if everyone else runs a little short by the end of the month.)
Hopefully, you see where I’m going with this. There’s no reason not to make a memoir come alive for the reader. Just as there’s no reason to intentionally make software documentation boring. I know; I’ve written my share. Even in technical writing, boredom should never be a requirement, despite what management at my last employer tried to tell me. If someone has to read it, then whoever is being paid to write it should do the best job they possibly can. And, in the process, if they can make it interesting, then they’ve done something of which they can be justifiably proud.
So, what all this means is pretty simple. If you intend for people to actually read what you write, be it fiction, memoir, documentary, or step-by-step instructions, you owe it to them to make the experience as real as you possibly can.
(And don’t even get me started on mangled English. I’d like to save that for a different rant, thank you veddymuch.)