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Bringing Real People to Life in Memoir

By Kathleen Finneran

In many ways, we memoirists have it made. Our plots present themselves to us wholly realized; our characters come to us fully formed. By using our own lives as subject matter, we are spared the hard work of imagination that fiction writers must bring to their craft. You might say that we're already ahead of the game going in.

If you were a writer fond of using sports metaphors, that is what you might say. We memoirists are already ahead of the game going in. We're like the junior league bowling team I was on in seventh grade. Because the league gave handicaps, our team always started out a good hundred points or so ahead. Of all the Saturday morning junior league teams, our team (we were named the Split Pickers if you must know, and now that you know, I feel compelled to tell you that it was a sincere -- if not wildly hopeful -- name, one that we chose for ourselves before any of us had become acquainted with the concept of irony) was given the highest handicap. For three years running, every Saturday morning, we were awarded the most points up front. For some reason, I always thought that was something to boast about.

So like my teammates and I at the Lucky Strike Lanes, as writers, we memoirists have a starting advantage, a handicap. We already know who's who and what happens. But if you rely too heavily on a handicap it will, well, it will handicap you. That's what happened to us Split Pickers. Each week, we frittered away that 100-point advantage pretty quickly. And that's what happened to me when I began writing memoir. Although I had a bounty of ready-made material, each story I wrote fell flat. We memoirists know our material so well that we sometimes forget to give the readers all the essential and luxurious details. Our stories often suffer from the fact that we are too familiar with them starting out.

To spare you (bowling pun unintended) the sense of failure I had over my first attempts at memoir, I'd like to share some techniques I utilize to overcome this handicap as it pertains to one important aspect of story writing: creating characters.

First, let's talk about the notion of characters and memoir. Because we tend to think of characters as fictional entities, they often don't come to mind when we think and talk about memoir. People don't ask me, for instance, about the father's motivations in my memoir or the mother's actions. They ask me about why my father did what he did or they comment on my mother's habits and mannerisms. When we talk about Pat Conroy's novel 'The Prince of Tides,' we might discuss the effect of the father's violence on the Wingo family; when we talk about Lee Martin's memoir 'From Our House,' we talk about the violent nature of Martin's father and the effect it had on Martin growing up. Henry Wingo remains a character; Roy Martin remains a man. Memoir is personal, and our discourse about it retains the personal. That's one reason why it's difficult for us to perceive the place of character in memoir. We never get past the people.

As memoir writers, we have to get past the people. In a sense, we have to forget that we know the people who are going to populate our memoir so that we can author them in the same way that writers of fiction author their characters.

How can we do this?

~ Introduce yourself to your Characters

One way is to reintroduce yourself to the people in your memoir. I don't mean this literally, of course. Don't drive to your loved ones' homes and ring their doorbells. Do this exercise instead: Recall your first memory of each of the people in your memoir. What age were they at the time? What age were you? What did they look like? What were you doing together at the time of your first memory; what kind of activity, if any, was taking place? Were any words spoken? What were they? What sensations do you remember in relation to your first recollection of each person -- what smells, colors, textures, sounds? Fiction writers often 'meet' their characters through some initial detail that reveals itself to them. Maybe it's a gesture or movement they observe, the way an old heavyset woman, for example, hops from foot to foot while attempting to hail a cab. Something about that triggers the recognition of a whole life for the fiction writer, something at the center of a story. The novelist Maeve Binchy tells us that her book 'Tara Road' had as its inspiration something she overheard a woman say on the bus, and she created a life, a character, a story around those words. What are the originating details of the characters in your life? This exercise will help you remember them as a first step to reconstructing their lives.

~ Talk to your Characters

After you've met the people in your life again, have a conversation with them -- on paper. Don't try to recreate a past conversation; have a new one. Because this will be an act of creation rather than recall, it will challenge you to think hard about what the people in your life will say and how they will say it. When you transform them into characters in your memoir, you may want them to talk occasionally. Or you may find that you want to include past conversations that you have difficulty remembering verbatim. This exercise will help you write dialogue that is true to character.

~ Create Character Profiles

Whereas creating characters in fiction is an act of construction, creating them in memoir is more an act of deconstruction. To overcome the handicap of being too familiar with your subject -- so familiar that you forget to let your reader know what is all too obvious to you -- it's useful to create character profiles for each of the people who have a part in your story. I do this by making a three-column list. In the first column, I brainstorm to create a list -- as exhaustive as possible -- of one- or two-word descriptions of the person. This column is labeled 'What I Know.' In the second column, 'How I Know It,' I write down how I've come to know the particular quality indicated in column one. For example, if I've described the person in column one as being cheap, in column two, I might write 'winces whenever he looks at the bill in a restaurant,' or 'carefully saves his partially used tube of Chapstick from one winter to the next; has had the same tube of Chapstick going for six seasons.' The last column is the key column for helping you to transform the people in your life into characters in your memoir. This column I label 'How to Show It,' and, in it, I jot down short notes about how I might convey the characteristic to a reader. In the case of my cheap friend who gets the most out of his Chapstick, I might write down 'scene - phoning dry cleaners,' reminding myself to write a scene that recreates the time he called the dry cleaners in a panic to see if he had left his Chapstick in the pocket of the winter coat he had just dropped off to be cleaned and stored for the summer.

Trying these exercises may seem contrived to you at first. You may find that you'd rather go bowling. If you do, think about what that says about you. What kind of quality does it represent? Is it a trait you've noticed about yourself on more than one occasion? A quality you would say is typical or atypical of you? If it's typical, how would you let a reader know that you possessed said quality?

If the exercises seem contrived when you do them for the people in your life, wait until you do them for yourself. After all, you are the main character in your memoir.

How's that for a handicap?

Meet the Author: Kathleen Finneran