|This is my life at Kenyon College right now – sunlight
filtering throug the trees along the Middle Path,
where we writers tread to meet for our
I just finished my last conference with participants of Rebecca McClanahan‘s Literary Nonfiction Workshop at the Kenyon Writers Workshop, and it seems I was able to help a few of them along on their journeys as writers by clarifying that no, a memoir does not have to be a book. I don’t know why we tend to think that memoir needs to be book length. Maybe because we see it as the nonfiction equivalent of the novel? Or because that’s what we tend to see on bookstore shelves? What then about the nonfiction counterpart of the short story? That might be an essay, but it could also be a memoir.
Often, especially when you are beginning your journey as a writer, it is better to think of shaping one episode, one encounter of your life that was meaningful, that was a turning point, that you keep thinking about into a story that works. Something that is itching and needs scratching. That is not to say that not more might grow out of it. Some memoirs were born out of one stunning essay – example: Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face grew from her National Magazine Award winning essay “Mirrors.” Still, this memoir is not a continuous narrative, but rather a collection of essays on the topic of her struggle with childhood cancer of the jaw.
Sometimes, a memoir can just be one page, or two, or three. And that’s it. That’s perfect. One excellent anthology to study short pieces like this is In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal. My personal favorite in that collection is Ariel Dorfman’s Dealing with the Discovery of Death Inside an Embassy in October of 1973 in Santiago de Chile. A momentous event captured in a few pages.
So free yourselves, dear writers of literary nonfiction: Even if you are envisioning a longer book, start small, write one piece and make that perfect, see if it can find a home where others can read it, too, and see where that success takes you.