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How to Write a Memoir. Or (The Expectation Virtues)

03/11/2015 04:46 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

I call them My Spectaculars. Together, we read, we write. We rive our hearts. We leave faux at the door. We expect big things from one another, from the memoirists we read, from the memoirists who may be writing now, from those books of truth in progress.

But what do we mean by that word, expectation?

It's a question I require my University of Pennsylvania Creative Nonfiction students to answer. A conversation we very deliberately have. What do you expect of the writers you read, and what do you expect of yourselves?

This year, again, I have been chastened, made breathless, by the rigor and transparency of my most glorious clan. By Anthony, for example, who declares up front, no segue: "I don't want bullshit."

Continuing:

Sure, metaphors, analogies, and unusual word pairings are permissible, maybe necessary at times, but don't push it. You describe the church as a "raspberry and white candy box with sugarcoated spires and crenellations." Raspberry and white candy box... so the church is some kind of red and white? Might have been easier if you just told me this from the start. But I get it. Everyone and their grandmother have described something as "white and red." So you needed to be creative and clever. And it was! But truthfully, I paused from your story there and fantasized about eating candy and other goodies. And that wasn't your point was it? I assume you wanted to tell me about your life rather than indulge my candy box fantasies? What the hell is a crenellation anyway? Some kind of notch or curvature you say? Fine then, yes, I could see why you used that word there, but I dunno... mind your word choice. If something's pretty, just say so. No need for pulchritude, or enchanting, or captivating, or prepossessing. Pretty does the job nicely. "Sugarcoated spires"... again with the candy metaphor? It's clever, but honestly, now I just need to take a break from reading and grab a Hershey's bar.

He's got good teeth, our Anthony, a wholesome smile. He has little patience for the self-conscious redirect, the aggrandizing contortion. Give him the scoop. Leave the sprinkles at home. Tell him the unspangled truth.

Or, as Heather says, leave the "boasting, superfluous language" aside, the "lack of humility." "Give us the quirks, the dirt, the neurotic tics, the unspoken," and do it in "wonderfully expressive plain English."

Go deep. Go real. Go unvarnished. Listen, please, to Synae:

I want to experience your story the way you experienced it, to love desperately, hate passionately, and persistently search for answers to the questions that you've encountered and continue to face. I want you to write as if by writing you are leaving tiny fragments of your journey in this life for an older, more senile you, to experience and relive. These fragments must therefore be vivid, though not so full of explanation they render a story of your life that you've already left and have no desire to return to. They must be snippets of the ordinary so remarkable that they succeed in evoking the same sentiment they once evoked in a younger, more fragile, version of you, but for a different reason. A reason that is full of experience and wisdom in understanding now, what would have made your tiny fragment less sorrowful or more hopeful at the time.

Inflated will never do. The look-at-me-and-only-at-me epic. Don't try to tell us everything, our David says. Just "isolate one lovely shell, a conch of wisdom."

I liken this to a student doing long division. In the margins we see the legwork, the scribbled arithmetic and the toiling down and down, until we arrive at the answer -- the universalism that extends outward from the work. And, in this respect, the author's life may be mundane if such a thing exists (it does not) or unbelievable, for it is not the events themselves, riveting as some of the scenes may be that engage me. It is the author's dissection of them that comes of the prevailing will to be understood by others and to understand himself.

If Kasey exhorts the memoirist to "take me away, design my mind, make me fall in love, make my heart race, challenge me," and Stephanie requires brave exploration, the writing of stories that "feel as though they're about something bigger than themselves," and Anita asks the memoirist to inspire, to surprise, to craft and yield a "distinct voice," and Devin values, above all else "candor and admission for things that go wrong because that is how they actually happened or that is the natural consequence of an imagined situation," then Silvia asks the memoirist to stand up straight and be a thinker:

Tell me the why and tell me the how of the world around me that I've not the time, energy, or skill to notice. Put into words the rhythm of my heartbeat--or the things my heart beats for. Make me visualize dimensions that are all too often forgotten, and revive in them the urgency with which we must learn from them. Talk about tendons; talk about sidewalks--use them as analogies to illustrate my dreams, explain my past, conceptualize my desires.

And if you can both think deep and poeticize, go ahead, Dani says, with a wink at Anthony, and take the chance. Go ahead, with care and craft. "I read to find disorientation, get drunk off a simile. I expect no less than a beautiful hangover. I expect nothing less than synesthesia." And while Elly's not calling for synesthesia in every memoir she reads, she is calling for memoirists who possess that "powerful ability of being comfortable with their own voice."

That comfort--it takes many shapes. But we know it when we see it. Please (again). Be yourself on the page. Do not be afraid of your broken pieces. Says Nina:

I don't want to open a book and see that every sentence is flawlessly crafted, no chapter lingers on for too long, all plot lines are wrapped up in a pretty little bow and handed to me on a silver platter. Perfection like that is too easy. I want writers who communicate complexity through flaws, within failures.

And then, and then almost finally (for there is no finally, there is just the bar being magnificently raised), write what we can love, write something that lasts, write from within a Big Hope, which is to say, write for all of us.

This, indeed, is what Hannah asks. This is incumbent upon you:

Writers: take me on journeys that mean something. Write things that I'll look up years later because I loved them. Write a book I could bring to an island and refuse to tire of. Write a book that I can reread thirty, forty, fifty times. Write a book I'll loan to all of my friends. Write a book that makes me laugh, or cry, or both. Write a book that makes me want to visit your house for a cup of tea to talk about it. Write a book that leaves witty inside jokes like treasures within the pages. Write a book that will make me feel that I am a different person than the one who began reading by the time I am at the end.

Leave something beautiful inside my head.

Beth Kephart is the author of 20 books, including Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, winner of the 2013 Books for a Better Life (Motivational) Award. She blogs at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com.