Why Is Writing a Memoir So Hard?

A former editor and reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, San Antonio Express-News and St. Petersburg Times, John Jeter is the author of the novel The Plunder Room (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne, 2009) and the forthcoming memoir Rockin’ a Hard Place (Hub City Press, 2012). He lives in Greenville, South Carolina.

I’ve been writing a long time–since I was six, and I’m old as hell now–but it’s only recently that I learned about the brutality of writing a memoir. Writing about anything so close, personally, emotionally, spiritually, even geographically, is about as much fun as working in a morgue every day, only the body you’re working on is still breathing, and the body happens to be you.

What could be so hard about exhuming a dead body and making it interesting and attractive?

Why start one then?

More than a year and a half ago, I was toying with the idea of a book about the concert hall that my wife, Kathy, my brother, Stephen, and I opened in 1994 in Greenville, SC, a venue called The Handlebar. While thinking about what a cool story that might be, I got to wondering how I would go about pitching it to literary agents. One night, though, I was pondering the project aloud when, fortunately or otherwise, the director, editor, publisher, founder and all-around dynamo behind Hub City Press in nearbySpartanburgoverheard me.

Next thing I know, she told me she wanted the book.

Then things got pretty damned hard, real fast.

A year before that, see,St. Martin’s Press had published my first novel.

The novel was a walk through the park. That process started one day when I was in the shower, where I do most of my best thinking and a lot of my best writing. The story for that book simply exploded into my brain, the entire manuscript complete right before my naked eye(s). Feverishly, I typed out the story that God had just written for me, and the whole thing was done in about three months. All told, I have written seven or eight novels like that, all of them in about ninety days. (I say “seven or eight” because at least four of them are painfully crappy and happily forgettable.) The stories just tell themselves, and I just type them.

But as soon as Hub City’s editor got her hooks in me and started creating things like deadlines, I found myself facing the impossible: a story that refused to tell itself because, for one thing, the story was still ongoing and, secondly, the story was about a character who was simply too close to me: me.

I remember once interviewing Russell Baker, the great New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Growing Up. Mr. Baker’s writing resonates with the gentleness of Thurber, the poetry of Rilke and the quiet wit of later Mark Twain. His countenance fairly resembles a beagle’s, so he gives off a sadness that’s somehow adorably optimistic.

I asked him about Growing Up, about how he wrote it and how he managed to pull off such a grand piece of work about things so intense and intimate: his boyhood and his relationship with his mother. After telling me that he had rewritten portions of the book fifty times (no small surprise there), he then added: “That boy I wrote about, that boy is dead.”

So I tried to follow my editor’s advice and, to some extent, Mr. Baker’s: Write about yourself as a character in a story that started 18 years ago, as if that “person” doesn’t exist anymore

The only trouble is that that person not only exists, but turning him into a character—that is, a distinct, separate being that you as a writer can look at the way a scientist studies a bug under a bell jar–is about as easy as studying a bug under a bell jar.

Not only that, but the entire “memoir” exercise runs contrary to all my journalism training. I learned a lot about nonfiction in journalism, which is sort of like saying that doctors learn a lot about medicine at medical school. The trouble is that when I left newspapering to write novels, I found that the switch was much like a divorce: ugly, painful, endless, with continuing demands from the Ex (Journalism) along with even more claims from my much needier trade-in spouse (Fiction). In “creative-nonfiction memoir” you find yourself mediating between the two. Both want to know: “Okay, big guy, what’s really true here?” Journalism asks: “What kind of bug is that?” And Wife No. 2 asks: “Did that bell jar ever belong to Sylvia Plath? Any way you could you write it so that it might have?”

With so much internecine internal warfare, it’s nigh impossible to get any work done. I spent the next fifteen months flapping like hell, mostly getting nowhere in futile exhaustion. I delayed, I scrambled, I crunched, I did everything I could to avoid peeling back the curtain of memories, some of them painful, some of them funny, some of them both.

As things turned out, the chapters that I wrote in the first year were so bad and so messy, for lots of reasons, that when deadline got frighteningly close, I stopped, took a deep breath and started from the beginning. I wound up pushing the entire thing out in six weeks.

Why is writing a memoir so hard?

Because it requires you to open your veins and tell your life story and intimate secrets to complete strangers in ways that fiction simply doesn’t (always) demand. On top of that, the whole self-absorbed, narcissistic feeling that flows from writing about yourself becomes more tedious than working in a Chinese gizmo factory.

It all comes down to details: What to leave in, what to leave out? What words to use, what language to avoid? What makes sense, what doesn’t? What’s the reader going to care about—or not? How much is really true and how much is almost true and what difference might any of that make? And what kind of structure should you use, though that should be patently obvious: life is linear, so a story about a slice of it should be, too. But stories about slices of life aren’t told with such linear ease. Stuff happens here, then here, but not always in the order that the memoir needs them to happen.

These are issues that fiction doesn’t have to worry about. You have a story. It has a beginning, middle and end—a plot. It has a theme. If the story’s good, it writes itself, and if you type fast, it writes itself quickly–at least, it does for me when God’s got my back and I’m just anxious to Get The Damn Thing Done.

So memoir? I’d just as soon talk about a recent crash on my bicycle or the car wreck that broke my ankle. As my friend points out, talking about writing a memoir is just another form of memoir, and writing a memoir is about as pleasant and safe and entertaining as climbing up a circus trapeze and flying with both hands tied behind your back with no net underneath. Fun for everyone else to watch, maybe . . .

All that said, I think this piece may be the last memoir I’ll write—unless I’m in the shower one day and a story about a slice of my life knocks me over the head. Only next time, if there is a next time, I’m going to make damn sure that the character I write about has been dead for so long that making him interesting and attractive would be almost easy as simply making him up from scratch.