Interview Transcripts

Valerie Harms: Writing Memoir 5/31/07


Legend:
Questions from the Audience are presented in red.
Answers by the Speaker are in black.
The Moderator's comments are in blue.

Mary Rosenblum

Hello all!

 

I'm glad to see you all here tonight. Welcome to our Professional Connection interview with Valerie Harms.

 

We're going to talk about all things memoir tonight.

 

Valerie's bio, posted on her website, is wonderful: A feminist, my first book was Unmasking: Ten Women in Metamorphosis (1973). My religion became depth psychology. A passion for Anais Nin led to joint projects, two more books and the founding of Magic Circle Press. When Elvis Presley died, I resurrected my memorabilia of encounters with him and published the story of his life. (Atheneum, 1979). Authored 2 children's books. For 20 years I've been an Intensive Journal consultant and C.G. Jung scholar. Working with the National Audubon Society on global environmental problems, I came to see how humans are inextricably woven into the web of nature and how essential it is to heal this relationship. I began life in Chicago, lived many years in Weston, CT, now live in Bozeman, MT, globe-trotting whenever possible.

 

Valerlie, that is a great bio on your website! Welcome to the website!

Valerie Harms

Thanks a lot, and hello everyone.

Mary Rosenblum

So, Valerie, how did you get started writing in the first place? Where did you begin?

Valerie Harms

Like many others, I started writing stories as a girl...I once had my grandmother mail a story to Seventeen but she never told me what happened to it.

Mary Rosenblum

So where did you first publish?

Valerie Harms

My first book was based on my consciousness-raising group of women in the arts in the early 70'sThey

 

gave me lots of support.  Like many writers I've wanted to tell about my life or at least episodes.  I should add these women took a look at Literary Marketplace and picked a name they liked and we sent my book there, and it was accepted.

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, very cool first sale story.  Ah, so now we come to a question that has always puzzled me a bit ( I don't write memoir, obviously). What is the difference between memoir and a personal narrative or autobiography?

Valerie Harms

Memoir is basically taking a slice of your life to write about.

 

Personal narrative can be found in fiction or autobiography.

 

Autobiography is telling more the whole of a life by oneself...Biography is when someone else writes about a life.

kolanda

What about writing about a family member's life?

Mary Rosenblum

So that would be biography essentially?

Valerie Harms

I'd say that would be autobiography or biography.

 

For instance, David Eggers has just written "the autobiography" of a Sierra Leone man.

Mary Rosenblum

Ah, I see.

Valerie Harms

I think writing family history is another important use of personal material.

 

The lines between genres get blurred...They're not arbitrary.

 

I should add that family history or one's own material can be written as memoir, fiction, or autobiography, or narrative non-fiction.

xana

It seems to me that writing a memoir is more difficult than writing fiction partly because most of one's own life which, of course, is interesting to oneself, isn't all that interesting to others

Mary Rosenblum

And there's the issue isn't it? How do you make it interesting to others?

Valerie Harms

Xana, and others, this is an important craft issue.  It's like home movies.

 

They can be dull to everyone except the subjects.  You have to use techniques of characterization, setting, plot, and so forth.

 

I'd like to add something....Would you ever think dishwashing would be interesting?

 

Someone is coming out with a memoir about dishwashing in every state of the U.S.

Mary Rosenblum

I heard several interviews with him as he wrote the pieces. They're very entertaining.

Valerie Harms

A number of people are writing blogs, which is another form of memoir.

 

One woman did all the recipes in Julia Child's cookbook and her memoir was published.

Mary Rosenblum

So it's not WHAT you're writing about, but rather how entertaining you make it?

Valerie Harms

That's true...That's where selection of detail and event and theme and good characterization become important.

reece

Like stand up comedy you take the every day things and show them in a new light?

Valerie Harms

Yes... Shall we look at some current memoirs that are good sellers.

Mary Rosenblum

I think that would be a very good idea.

Valerie Harms

You all probably know Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking...well, that is based on her husband's death.   This is a common experience for a number of people.

 

Another extremely popular one is Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.

 

In this book, she is divorced, smitten with a new man who turns out to be wrong.

 

She goes to 3 different countries with different solutions and ends up telling how she recovered.

 

Ann Patchett, who wrote Truth and Beauty, describes a friendship.

 

The quality comes from good writing skills.

 

I'm trying to get across the idea that you don't have to be famous or climb high mountains in order to have an interesting subject.

charie'

Could "Tuesdays with Morrie" be considered personal narrative?

Valerie Harms

Yes, and memoir too.

flywriter

How about Jeannette Walls with The Glass Castle?

Valerie Harms

Yes, that was a very unusual experience she had.

reece

Is the Diary of Anne Frank considered a memoir or autobiography?

Valerie Harms

 

 

Diaries are more recorded history on a daily basis...I think of the diaries of Anais Nin too. Travel makes for good memoirs...I think of John Steinbeck, who wrote "Travels with Charley (his dog)"....

johnw

How would you classify Beryl Markham's "West With The Night?"

Valerie Harms

A memoir of a certain event.

kolanda

I am writing about my family's history but because I can only gather so many actual facts can I use fiction and will that still make it a memoir?

Valerie Harms

No, you would call that a fictional memoir. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt is a popular memoir...It brings up the issue of dialogue....And this relates to your question about fiction.

 

 

johnw

Is that where James Frey went over the line? In order to make things more interesting, he made things up?

Valerie Harms

Yes. He added untrue events too.

 

Many memorists admit to making up dialogue, recalling things to the best of their ability...

 

which is not always reliable. Hence, Stephen Colbert made up the term "truthiness."  It's better

 

to say something is fictional than to pretend otherwise.

kbr

So if I choose to write about my spirituality, is that considered a memoir as opposed to an autobiography or narrative?

Valerie Harms

 

 

There are lots of examples of spiritual memoirs....They're your personal account of a certain time period and events.   On the question about writing about another, remember Gertrude Stein famously wrote "the autobiography of Alice B. Toklas." Many writers plainly write fiction based on their actual experience, e.g. Erica Jong and Pam Houston.

flywriter

What do you think the public enjoys most? Fiction or memoir?

Valerie Harms

People have a desire to know people's "real" experiences and respond to memoirs.

 

However, fiction tends to have more drama, something you can escape into.

 

Probably a lot more fiction is published, because there are many, many genres of it.

kolanda

I read somewhere memoirs are one of the more popular genres now. Is that true?

Valerie Harms

I don't think so in terms of the numbers published.

 

But a lot of the memoir energy is siphoned into blogs and Youtube these days.

johnw

Which begs the question: why not write first, classify later?

Mary Rosenblum

Decide if it's autobiography or memoir?

Valerie Harms

No, you should decide because it will make a difference in structure but you can decide on structure after your first draft.

 

You can experiment with approaches...A writer once said that a tight structure will make you more creative.

 

I have the feeling that if you just launch into your whole life it will feel like free verse and not have enough focus.

Mary Rosenblum

So what does that novice writer need to consider in terms of structure?

Valerie Harms

They have to think what is their true subject and leave everything else out...For instance, the dishwasher isn't going to get into relationships or family or spirituality most likely.

 

On the other hand, if you have a grandfather who led an extraordinary life, then you would stick to his life. Remember, memoir has more of a time limit than autobiography.

elizabethcarol

How do you decide what goes in what chapter?

Valerie Harms

Regarding chapters, this is part of the craft issue, you have to outline your manuscript and take a crack at it, revising later.

kolanda

So, if you have the main character, build around him/her and bring everyone else on board around that person?

Valerie Harms

A memoir will have you as the central character and others in relation to you.  An autobiography will have another person as the central figure.

sss1208

Where's the market for memoirs and autobiography?

Valerie Harms

Markets...many publishers have some on their lists...I suggest you

 

check book shelves in stores and the library to see who has published them.

Valerie Harms

Just like with other forms of writing, find memoirs that are similar to yours and try to send to those publishers first, even contacting those editors if possible.

Mary Rosenblum

Just a note...you're probably better checking the bookstore shelves rather than the library, since those books might have been published some years ago, and publishing houses change their focus regularly these days.

Valerie Harms

Would you like to talk about writing about living people or relatives?

Mary Rosenblum

Let me give you

 

this question first, Valerie, since it pertains to that.

xana

What makes fictional characters interesting could result in a lawsuit when writing about real people. How does one handle this?

Mary Rosenblum

What about the legal aspects of this real-life writing?

Valerie Harms

You are right, xana, you call everything "fiction." In terms of real life writing

 

you are free to write anything you want about anyone unless it is libelous.

 

Libel means calling them a thief, criminal or sexual pervert...Otherwise, most writers strongly.

 

defend their freedom...That said, many writers give family members consideration.

 

Annie Dillard in her book on memoir writing (it's good) thinks she owes it to her family to show them anything she plans to publish.

 

Mary Karr has written a popular but mean memoir about her parents, after which she became closer to her mother (her father died).

 

So you never can predict what reactions will be...I happen to have a daughter

 

who is a writer too, and she has used me in her fiction from time to time.

 

Once in a story she described the time her father and I were having a tense time, and I strongly objected to her interpretation...

 

We had a fierce argument but she stuck to her independent sense of self.

 

I basically had to accept it too, and I did come to respect that viewpoint, even if I didn't like what she'd done.

Mary Rosenblum

Yes, let us please address the personal ethics issue of exposing events to public scrutiny that some family members will find very painful! What about that? What is your obligation as memoirist? Do you have an opinion?

Valerie Harms

Yes, as I say, it's up to you.  Do you want to make your family uncomfortable or do you want to pursue your goal? There are various opinions about it.  You are free to do whatever you want without libeling someone.

johnw

The psychiatrist's family sued Augusten Burroughs ("Running With Scissors") over his depiction of their family.

Valerie Harms

Annie Dillard considers her family, but Mary Karr didn't and in the end grew closer to her mother.  The psychiatrist may sue but not likely get anywhere...People can be upset but then they can write their own book.

lorib

Do you seek permission to use "others" in a memoir?

Valerie Harms

No.

Mary Rosenblum

The only rule as far as I know is 'don't libel' (or you will get sued)

Valerie Harms

It is assumed you are writing from your point of view.  We all have different viewpoints, even of the same situation.

coolbohemian

What is the average length of the memoir?

Valerie Harms

They can vary; I don't know of any average length.

Mary Rosenblum

Short memoir is very popular in the nonfiction magazine market.

Valerie Harms

Another word about family when writing memoirs, it's important not to let them hold you back mentally.

 

You can be paralyzed from writing your truth...I suggest you

 

go ahead and write drafts and then edit later.  Don't let fear deter you.

 

Another point to make is what is your motive?  Revenge will become clear and that is not going to win an audience.

 

The main point is to focus on the theme or events that prompted the memoir anyway. Don't write out of revenge as that motive won't win an audience.

flywriter

What % of a dark experience in life should fill a book? Like the movie Pursuit of Happiness I felt was draining with little relief in the end. How should a book be?

Valerie Harms

A lot of times memoirs are of tough experiences that people normally don't have time for in conversations, flywriter, and so darkness might be part of it.  You don't have to read dark subjects, e.g. like sexual abuse memoirs.

charie'

Is short memoir more like a single anecdote like a comedian would do?

Valerie Harms

Very short memoir for a magazine, as Mary mentioned before, would be like a polished anecdote.

writeaway

When writing a memoir do you use people's real names?

Valerie Harms

You know, a wonderful humorous memoirist is David Sedaris, and he writes about his family all the time.  Memoirs require people's real names, unless you say at the outset that you are changing them.

charie'

If someone in your family was/is a crook, murderer, etc. and you write the memoir, is it still libel?

Valerie Harms

If someone has been convicted as a crook, then it's not libel.

Mary Rosenblum

'Been convicted as...' That is the key.

Valerie Harms

Right...But notice how sexual abuse is not libelous.

 

Many memoirs these days are from reporters in war zones

 

and even Cindy Sheehan, the war protester, writes her "memoirs" on a blog.

 

All these books by say George Tenant and others are giving their points of view of particular political events - their memoirs.

sailor

I'm writing a novel based on my grandparents' lives. There's a lot I don't know and have to make up, so to me it qualifies as fiction. A writer friend told me to be careful that it's not a memoir. Because I have to make up a lot and because it all happened long before I was born, I don't think it's a memoir. Am I in danger of it being a memoir?

Valerie Harms

No, you are right that it is fiction very clearly.  As the writer Jim Harrison

 

has said every writer uses their own lives in their stories; that's what you build with.

 

You are writing fiction and full speed ahead...I hate to hear of anyone being held up.

sss1208

I want to write about a brand name game board, do I need to get permission to use their name?

Valerie Harms

No, those are in the public domain; they like it because it's advertising.

 

It's amazing but you'll find many people have had memoirs of their dogs published.

Mary Rosenblum

Oooh, Im sorry, Valerie, I think youre wrong about the brand names.

 

Some owners, such as the Disney Corporation and occasionally McDonalds are VERY legally active about protecting their brand names.

writeaway

I came in a little late so if this question was asked, I apologize. Since people don't tape record conversations; is a memoir narrative?

Valerie Harms

The conversation question is a good one to emphasize.  Reporters, for instance, will say anything they don't have on tape makes their work fiction.

 

On the other hand, most memoirists "make up" dialogue because they don't have it verbatim

 

they are recollecting it....You can say in a preface something about representing truth to the best of your ability.

Mary Rosenblum

Is there any place in memoir for dialogue?

Valerie Harms

You have to use dialogue to make it seem "realistic" but you can either write a prefatory note or get it on tape.

 

I'd like to give a couple of writers'

 

experiences with memoirs versus fiction.

 

Alice Sebold wrote a memoir called "Lucky" about being raped.

 

Then years later she wrote a novel about a family healing from a murder, which was based on her personal experience.

 

The novel was extremely successful but first came the memoir.   Another writer, Larry Colton

 

tried to write a nonfiction narrative about life for an Indian girl on a reservation but it didn't sell.

 

He then recast it as a memoir, and that was far more emotionally powerful and sold.

 

The point I'd like you all to get is that there are many ways of using personal experience.

 

You can write direct memoir but if you hold back in that, then try fiction....Or,

 

you can try "faction" or "narrative nonfiction" in which you tell your story based on facts but using dialogue, drama, and characterization.

 

Truman Capote's document about the murder case, In Cold Blood, was called "faction" because it was a mixture of fact and fictional techniques.

johnw

Regarding Larry Cotton : didn't you say a while back that YOU are the main character in a memoir? So did Larry Cotton become an Indian girl? Isn't that a fictional memoir?

Valerie Harms

Larry Colton wrote about the impact on himself of knowing this Indian girl and watching her play basketball....You can also write a book for children or magazine article.  I also think that writing family histories for your own family's benefit and legacy is one of the most important things you can do.  Let me say that psychotherapists agree that you should write down the skeletons in the closet too for posterity to see.

lorib

My idea is a memoir titled Casualties of War...my father was a POW...lived with untreat PTSD and because of that (I) we(brothers and sisters) grew up causalities of WWII...I have researched the camp but should I stick with only the things he told me?

Valerie Harms

lorib, I'd research the camp too and see what you learn about it and can add.  Sounds like a powerful story.

Mary Rosenblum

It does indeed! And I had a question about writing the family memoir.

Mary Rosenblum

What about self publishing for the person who simply wants to write about family matters for the family? I know I have students like that.

Valerie Harms

Yes, nowadays with the print-on-demand publishers, you can have lasting books produced.  It's very valuable to family heritages.

 

By the way, two of the most popular print-on-demand publishers are www.iUniverse.com and www.Xlibris.com.

Mary Rosenblum

They're both excellent and so is lulu.com

Valerie Harms

Xlibris will incorporate color pictures too.

gskearney

In response to Mary's question, I'd like to add that I have been moderating and hosting an online site that has a section for family history and genealogy. I think that's a good solution for many people these days.

Valerie Harms

Another point about memoirs is that while they may be more confessional, the writer also can analyze his/her experience more.

 

What site is that gk?

gskearney

It's currently on Myfamily.com, but I've used other sites as well.

Valerie Harms

Thanks, I'm sure that's helpful.

flywriter

Do you feel a memoir is better written in the order the events occurred or reflecting and bringing the reader periodically back to the present?

Valerie Harms

It seems some chronology is usually maintained, although as

 

in Bob Dylan's Chronicles, there were gaps...He started with a scene from how he ended up, which served as a nice frame to the book.

 

You can be creative in structure.

kolanda

The historical society in my hometown wants to put the book on my 5th generation grandfather in their collection as was a prominent member of government there in the 1800's. So I should maybe consider just a autobiography on him, then write the fiction book later?

Valerie Harms

That sounds good as long as you won't run out of steam focusing on him.

Valerie Harms

A writer once said that in memoirs he wrote things he couldn't discuss socially...That's the advantage and appeal of memoirs.

Mary Rosenblum

Okay, I have to come back to the trademark and fair use issue. Since we were SO opposite on this (and I was SO sure I was right) I had to go look it up on one of my legal sites. And I'm wrong, Valerie is right. You CAN use trademarks now (it has changed since I started writing) with a bunch of caveats. If they're non pejorative. Here's the link: http://www.publaw.com/fairusetrade.html

 

I bow to your greater rightness here, Valerie! :-)

Valerie Harms

Wow, that was fast, Mary!...Thanks for illuminating the subject for us all.

Mary Rosenblum

Well, Im glad I looked. I sure had it wrong and I try to keep up on things like that!

 

Well, we're almost out of time here. Valerie do you want to tell us about anything you have out now or coming out?

Valerie Harms

As we are closing in on the two hours, I want to add that memoirs have more "art" than blogs.

 

My most recent book is called Dreaming of Animals, which is a mixture of people's dreams and stories about how they relate to wild animals...My aim is to build a more heartfelt caring for endangered species.

 

And dreams show us what we need to do to heal ourselves and the earth.

 

My most successful book was The Inner Lover, I believe, because of so much personal material.

Mary Rosenblum

Any last suggestions for writers wanting to try memoir for the first time?

Valerie Harms

I say be brave and diligent, let nothing distract you.

 

Use your best artistic sensibilities and revise later.

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you, Valerie! This has been very informative. Personal narrative, memoir, and autobiography get bandied about a lot.

 

I'm much clearer on which is what now.

 

I think we all learned a lot here tonight.

Valerie Harms

You're welcome...It's been fun and informative to me too.

flywriter

Thank you Valerie and Mary!

lorib

Thank you Valerie

writeaway

Thank you, Valerie for a most interesting dicussion. And thank you Mary, it's been great...as always.

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you all for coming!

Valerie Harms

You're most welcome.

Mary Rosenblum

Thanks, so much, Valerie! And good night!

 

Good night all, and enjoy writing those memoirs!

Valerie Harms

Good night, all.

 

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