Memoirs in the writing group.

A new member recently joined our writing group and brought with them a type of writing that I hadn’t ever encountered in the writing group setting before. They wrote memoir nonfiction.  I say I hadn’t ever encountered memoir nonfiction in a writing group, but actually I am not terribly familiar with reading memoirs or other close personal types of work at all.  Even still, I didn’t expect the critiquing process to be as different or challenging as it was for me.

The first challenge I came across when reading their memoir submissions was getting past the feeling that I was intruding into the author’s sacred personal space. Their writing detailed very personal events and situations, that were sometimes uncomfortable to read.  I kept picturing the author in the scenes, saying and doing the things that were on the page.  I found that to be very distracting and sometimes even disconcerting.  It is one thing to read intimate thoughts and details about a character you don’t know or that you know isn’t real, it’s something very different to read those same things about someone you know on a first name basis; someone you know loves cats and has two small children.

The second thing I found challenging about critiquing the memoir submissions was allowing myself to honestly evaluate the different story elements like scene, setting, and plot. The closeness of the author got in the way during this part as well.  I mean how do you tell an author, “the setting for that scene seemed off,” “that situation was a little unrealistic,” or “I don’t think the main character would have said that,” when all of the situations were supposedly based on true events?  I remember feeling like I didn’t have the “authority” to criticize the thematic elements of their work.

It turned out that I wasn’t the only one in our group having some issues critiquing the new type of writing. We discussed the issue during one of our critique sessions, and it was helpful for me to hear what the others of the group, including the author of the memoir work, thought.  In the end, I arrived at a couple of conclusions.

The first was that I needed to remove the author from the critiquing process as much as I could. I began referring to the character only, and usually as “the character”, to put some separation between the two.  That may sound silly, but it had a very positive effect for me and allowed me to tackle the second part of the problem easier.

The second conclusion I came to was that the author had come to our group looking for an honest critique of their writing, and that was what I owed them. They stated emphatically that they wanted, even needed, to know when the elements of their story didn’t ring true or sounded inconsistent.  I needed to forget that the writing was based on real events and evaluate it as a story first.

I think one of the things I enjoy most about being part of a writing group is the exposure to different ideas and different ways of doing things. I have a tendency to be a bit introverted and I also find that the older I get the more a creature of habit I become.  Being required to read types of writing that I may not otherwise read, has been good for me as a person and as a writer.  I recommend that every writer read and critique outside their genre and style at least once in a while.

3 comments for “Memoirs in the writing group.

  1. H. R. Ryder
    H. R. Ryder
    October 19, 2014 at 11:24 am

    I have to say, I think it takes a special kind of courage for an author to put a memoir in any group with people you have to see face to face, especially when it contains such intimate details. Either that, or I guess it is a form of exhibitionism I haven’t previously been aware of. Still, I have respect for what she did even if I could never see myself doing it. I recall when first coming to WIT, I was really worried about putting my writing out in front of other people again, especially after having published in professional journals which is pretty much its own form of ass rape. I think all the authors who come to writers groups and are willing to accept criticism of their work takes courage.

    • H. R. Ryder
      H. R. Ryder
      October 19, 2014 at 9:40 pm

      It isn’t a matter of me being charitable as much as it is knowing what I’m afraid of. I have had multiple requests for my memoirs, offers to help me get them published, people who have begged me to share them because of how valuable it would be to people who share my mental illness, and tell me how commercially successful it would be. I have seen people who published similar memoirs get flown across the country to talk to packed stadiums of people. I have their contact information, and promises to get me in contact with their agents and publishers. Of all the things I could write, a memoir would be the easiest for me to get published, and arguably have the greatest potential for commercial sales based on similar titles. Yet the idea of putting myself out there, even under the shielding of pseudonyms, is deeply uncomfortable.

  2. Ian
    October 17, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Having that member in the group was a bit awkward. Like you, I felt I couldn’t critique characters or plot the way I can with a novel. How do you tell a memoirist that his story (i.e. his life) isn’t interesting enough to justify a book or that his protagonist (i.e. him, as he’s depicted himself) is unlikable?

    Unlike you, I never figured out a way to get around the awkwardness–I held my tongue and ended up giving very little in the way of useful or even honest feedback. Thanks for posting your strategies.

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