Author Marion Roach Smith gets angry at dinner parties when brain surgeons ask what she does for a living and then say, "A writer! Wonderful! I'm going to write a book someday myself."
Recently, she says, she has taken to replying, "When I retire I'm going to become a brain surgeon."
Writing, as she argues in her new book "The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life," is hard work. If it didn't require the occasional retching and moaning, she writes, "every brain surgeon could do it."
Yet Roach Smith, a former New York Times writer who has taught memoir writing at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, N.Y., since 1998, said she believes "everybody should write." Not everyone, she adds, needs to aspire to write for publication. Many people may have smaller-scale, more personal goals: to give a husband the 50th-anniversary gift of an essay on why he is loved, to leave children an account of their ancestors' emigration or self-discovery.
Regardless of the goal, writers can learn to make their stories more effective and even moving. She recommends keeping details specific and seeing what happens if you write about big events obliquely, looking at them sidelong rather than straight on. She writes that in most cases she'd rather read an essay about dressing for a funeral than about sitting there listening to the eulogy.
Q A lot of people might not be familiar with what "memoir" means. How is it different from autobiography?
A The way I whack it up for my students is that autobiography -- a book-length story of an entire life -- is best left to the famous. People whose lives have highlights we all know about, but whose details we might like filled in for us.
Memoir is best left to the rest of us. It focuses on one aspect of a life. And when we write our memoir, we should do it that way -- one aspect of our lives at a time. Even if we're writing for family, we should avoid telling the story of our whole lives. Because no matter how much our readers love us, they would enjoy it more if we focused on one element -- how I became a naturalist, why I became a lawyer, or why I love being your mother -- at a time.
We avoid the big themes when we go chronologically. And I think that's too bad.
Q Not all of your students are writing for publication, right?
A No, and I don't think everybody should. I believe genuinely that everybody has a story to tell. Writing memoir is the single greatest portal to self-discovery. I don't know how I feel about anything, including my husband, until I sit down and write about it.
It's easy to say, "I love my husband," but if you want me to explain why, I'll have to tell you the story of how he told me that one of my best friends had died. That one of my dear friends had committed suicide. And how he gave it to me in one tiny little fact at a time, in a way that I could ... absorb, as opposed to just breaking down completely.
But if, instead, I just say "I love my husband," you don't learn a thing. And that's the beauty of what this format allows.