Donna Minkowitz, who lives in Beacon, is the author of Growing Up Golem: How I Survived My Mother, Brooklyn and Some Really Bad Dates. Her next memoir-writing workshop begins Jan. 19; see donnaminkowitz.com to register.
Why do people write memoirs?
The motivation is the same as for other kinds of art, except memoirs are more directly personal. Some people are interested in the writing process; others want to share it with the world, just as some people enjoy painting for themselves and others want it to be exhibited. Many memoirs are books, but they don’t have to be. It can be an essay. You can even write multiple memoirs about the same period, if you present the material differently. Or you might change your mind about what a period in your life meant.
Who takes your course?
My student base might be skewed because I’m a woman and I tend to get more women. It’s also possible more women want to write memoirs. Men do, as well, but I think there’s pressure on them to not get so personal about emotional things. More-educated people may feel they have a right to write and have fewer internal barriers to overcome. Some working-class people might not have grown up thinking they’re allowed to be a writer. In my experience, every type of person wants to write but they don’t always feel justified doing it. But no one lacks material.
What advice do you offer students?
Writing skills make a difference. Also, incorporating the senses, which makes writing richer, more vivid because they are deeply tied to memory. If you get specific, describing the temperature of a person’s hand, it can evoke feelings in the reader. Write about your emotions. It’s great when people write about being angry. You can combine senses and emotion. When you experience something physically, you often have feelings about it. Almost every writer I’ve met needs more confidence; that’s certainly true of my students. It’s hard to be a writer in this culture. People are constantly being told too many people are trying to publish. I say let 100 flowers bloom. There’s no problem with too much being written.
What was the most challenging part of writing Golem?
Taking some particularly painful experiences I had been through and writing about them in a way that would draw others in, instead of pushing them away. I found playfulness was the way to go.
Does the passage of time affect the accuracy of a memoir?
Our memories are not particularly accurate. Neuroscience has shown that every time we remember an experience, our brain changes it a little. That’s why a witness to a crime gets the color of a jacket wrong. Memoir writers should aim for emotional truth, not verbatim, chronological accuracy. That would be boring. A memoir has to be shaped. Life doesn’t automatically happen in the form of a story. In a memoir, you pick and choose what you emphasize. Much of it is unearthed along the way. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote: “If you know how the story ends, why tell it?” As you write about your experience, you learn more and more about it; you come to understand it on a deeper level. The best memoirs usually involve how a person changes. They start at a certain place, end up in a different place. Maybe they grew and life became better. Maybe they did the opposite, ending up in a terrible place. Both situations can make a compelling memoir.
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