Turning the cover of a memoir is like opening a small paperback door. The title page, publication information and prologue are curtains that gently billow us in. The first paragraph locates us and introduces us to its narrator. Soon we are joining another - learning from their life experiences, mapping their challenges and achievements. That memoir draws from real life is part of its appeal to readers. But what is like to write a memoir, to define the story in the reality of the everyday? Over the past few years Jo Case, a writer and editor (currently Senior Writer/Editor at the Wheeler Centre) has been working on Boomer and Me: a memoir of motherhood and Asperger’s. I ask Case how she overcame what I imagine is a big challenge of writing memoir: having a 24/7 immersion in her subject. ‘The first thing I did was a very rough chapter plan,’ she says. Although her plan changed over time, it still gave her broad direction.
While following that direction, Case also allowed herself some freedom in her first draft. ‘There’s a bit of a filter when you’re writing but I just tried to write what I was going to write and then go back and edit,’ she says. Once she had her story down Case looked for prose that was extraneous (the proverbial darlings). ‘There were little bits I had in there that I liked in terms of what they said about the characters in the book. But they weren’t actually necessary and they weren’t actually telling you anything that you didn’t see elsewhere or that you really needed to know,’ she says. Even after she sent her self-edited manuscript to her editor, Case estimates a further 20 thousand words were both cut and added.
Writing memoir raises the question of when and how to include other people. Case wrote a piece in Meanjin about her biggest challenge in this context: writing about her son. But there were other character portrayals to be considered too. ‘I would think about the fact that the writers who I admire don’t write with a view to being nice. They don’t write with a view to being mean either but there’s a certain amount of courage in there,’ she says. Case told the story as she saw it in her first draft. It wasn’t until she was editing that she gave rein to her anxieties and conscience about specific characters.
Like many writers Case had days when everything she wrote seemed bad to her. ‘I am so critical of myself. That was one of my biggest hurdles when I was writing,’ she says. She had periods of inactivity when she was convinced that her prose was poor, either because it was impossible to write or because it came too freely. At these times she drew on her knowledge of craft. ‘I knew that you have to write crap and then write through it to get to the good stuff. But it’s one thing to intellectually know that and another to actually deal with the fact that you’re creating words that make you feel like you’re no good.’ Nevertheless Case did dealt with it and now has a respected book to show.
For Case, self-belief was a challenge that related not only to her prose, but also to her genre. ‘I felt really narcissistic about [writing memoir]. I felt embarrassed when people would ask me what I was writing... It felt like the cheesiest thing to be doing. And I don’t feel cheesy about the book,’ she says. Memoir is not without its detractors. But Case overcame these concerns by studying her genre carefully. She wrote her conclusions in a popular post on her blog, Problem Child: In Defence of the Memoir.
In talking to me she sums up her philosophy about what makes a good memoir and writing in general. ‘I like reading books where the author clearly hasn’t made up their mind about what kind of perspective they’re trying to give you. [It’s more like they’re] exploring questions than trying to give you an answer,’ she says. Case kept this top of mind while writing. ‘I tried to keep thinking that I should be learning. I tried to keep questioning myself and to not just write things as they happened but to think a little more deeply about it – to be unafraid to leave things open,’ she says.
Which is an engaging way to close a memoir really… leaving things to resonate in its readers’ lives.