Your memoir needs to have a reason for being, says Jo Case. Ahead of her upcoming workshop, we talked to Jo about why it is important for a memoir to have a central theme.
You say that discovery should be at the heart of any good memoir – do you mean that a life discovery might form the inspiration for writing the memoir, or that the
process of memoir writing is itself a sort of discovery? What shape did this take in the writing of your memoir?
I believe that the process of memoir-writing itself should involve discovery. Connecting moments in your life and making meaning of them, and connecting that meaning to broader ideas, or contextualising them within the wider world, is at the core of of it. And when you’re excavating meaning, you’re also discovering things. Memoir means digging deep, asking questions of yourself and others, and circling back as you write to ask more questions. Curiosity is hugely important.
How important is it for a memoir to have a strong theme?
Very important! A memoir is the story of an aspect of a life, as opposed to an autobiography, which is a chronicle of a life. Your memoir needs to have a reason for being, and a central theme that can be summed up in a sentence. For example, mine for Boomer and Me was ‘motherhood and Asperger’s’, which was in my subtitle. The theme of Rosie Waterland’s The Anti-Cool Girl was growing up disadvantaged and making a success of herself despite the odds. Cory Taylor’s memoir Dying is described in the title. And so on. There will also be sub-themes, which often emerge as you write. In Boomer and Me, that was ‘what’s normal anyway? – in a family, as an identity, in a life’.
In your upcoming course on theme in memoir writing, participants will learn to ‘write from the inside out’ – can you elaborate on what this involves?
Part of what makes a memoir worth reading by people who don’t know you is the way you connect your experience to the world you inhabit, and make the particulars of your life stand for something more. Writing from the inside out is just that: learning to put your life story in context.
Your advice to emerging writers is to always be open to criticism but to learn to recognise if it will make your writing better. Have you ever received helpful criticism from an unlikely source?
Probably! Though to be honest, I don’t think I see any source of criticism or feedback, or learning about how to improve my writing, as ‘unlikely’. It can come from anywhere, and it’s not always a direct comment on your work. For instance, I was at first dispirited and then inspired by an infamous New York Times book review of four memoirs called ‘The Problem with Memoir’ by Neil Genzlinger, which basically said there are too many memoirs published and begged writers to just ‘Shut up’, with a few exceptions. In the end, I memorised those exceptions (which included ‘unless you’re discovering something as you write’) as advice for how to avoid common traps. I also learned, from one review by a writer I respect who made a criticism that concurred with a late gut instinct I’d had about the first third of my book, that I need to trust my gut instincts more … and that I need to give myself time to really thoroughly revise the early sections of a work once I’ve finished, to make sure every element links to the questions explored.
You say that good writing is about revealing the ordinary in the extraordinary, or the extraordinary in the ordinary. What are some of your favourite examples of these types of writing?
Mary Karr, probably my favourite memoirist, has a trilogy of three memoirs about an extraordinary life – a mother who had secretly been married six times (the last time being Mary’s father) and had a psychotic episode where she burned the family’s belongings and stood over Mary with a knife; David Foster Wallace kept asking her to marry him; Tobias Wolff
introduced her to his agent and Catholicism; and more. The real beauty of the book is in the way she evokes the ordinary in this extraordinary life, through details or emotions the reader can identify with.
Many of David Sedaris’s essays reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary. Though really, most lives are extraordinary in some way if you get down to the detail of it.
About Jo Case
Jo Case is the author of 'Boomer and Me: A memoir of motherhood and Asperger’s', which was shortlisted for the Russell Prize for Humour Writing in 2015. Her personal essays have been published in the anthologies 'Rebellious Daughters' (2016) and 'Mothermorphosis' (2015) and in The Age, and her fiction has been published in Best Australian Stories and The Big Issue. She has been associate editor of Kill Your Darlings and senior writer/editor at the Wheeler Centre.
About Amy Adeney
Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.