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Your memoir needs to include the outside story as well as the inside story.

Photo Credit: Wiebke Flickr via Compfight cc

I’m prepping for my beginning memoir class at The Loft Literary Center (6-8 p.m. Wednesdays for six weeks, starting July 12), and I thought I’d share a handout I’m planning to use.

I excerpted some passages from “Let Me Think About That: The Memoirist as Ruminant,” by Joyce Dyer (The Writer’s Chronicle, September 2013, pp. 90-99). These passages highlight the importance of reflection in memoir. Memoir requires a duality: the story AND the reflection, often referred to as the outer story and the inner story. Memoir needs both to work. A memoir can be crafted from any story, even something that at the surface seems “small” or “quiet.”

Excerpts:

“We need material—particular and original material—to chew on. Without it, any thoughts we might have will be bare—hackneyed or mundane. But the size of the story—the number of celebrities or crimes or macabre details on the pages—is not relevant.”

Examples:

  • Lee Martin’s essay “Colander,” about his confusion as a boy between calendar and colander.
  • Nikki Finney’s essay “Inquisitor and Insurgent: Black Woman with Pencil, Sharpened,” about a No. 1 lead pencil.
  • David Brendan Hopes’s “The Anniversary” about a hike on Palm Sunday through a North Carolina forest and his memory of ants.

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“The real work of memoirists is to think about the memories that arrive—whatever they are—and to consider what they’ve meant, and to welcome the associations they invite. To live their lives over again on the page, but this time with both greater scrutiny and greater sympathy.”

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“Chapter by chapter of racing and unrelenting narrative is not what is best for the writer or reader of memoir…No, memoirists tell stories in part for the sake of interrupting them.”

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“…I had to admit that I was often spending too much time telling stories about the past and remembering myself as the younger person I once was. I was not spending enough time thinking about what had really happened to me and the questions that were raised.”

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We want to use things like description and scenes and dialogue, but in memoir we don’t want to over-rely upon them.

“Great memoirists are ruminants.”

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