The art of memoir and writing about history

Mary Karr came to St. Louis again, this time to talk about The Art of Memoir, her latest popular book. She’s had quite a life and lived to tell about it: The Liars’ Club, Cherry, Lit. She said, “Writing is a way of connecting.” Connecting with yourself and with others. Her goal in writing is to “make the reader feel something.” Let them feel what it was like to be there.

More recently, I went to hear H.W. Brands talk about his book about the butting heads relationship between Harry Truman and General MacArthur during the Cold War, because I thought I might learn something new about the Korean War, beyond the research for Battlefield Doc. While Dr. Brands did have interesting things to say about “The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War,” I was surprised to hear him talk about the art of writing. The audience was mostly older than me—men and women old enough to remember this forgotten war—and I was not sure they were there to hear about writing skills.

Turns out, Dr. Brands, a historian, teaches writing, too. He knows that he needs to identify who he is writing for. He said his model reader wants to learn about the real world. Not everyone does. (Note: the reader audience for your memoir is not “everybody,” as many new authors believe.) Brands asked his writing students if they thought reading true stories was better than reading fiction. Some said no, because they read to escape from real life. And if they read anything historical with dates, that made them feel they were supposed to learn and remember—work! So Brands decided to write history as biographies that read more like novels. “History is boring, but biographies are interesting because they are about people” and not a bunch of dates and places. His wife reminded him of Elmore Leonard’s famous advice, “Take out the boring stuff.”

So, as you write your memoir, or a memoir/biography of a parent or grandparent, remember to take out the boring stuff and make the reader feel what it was like to be there. Many memoirs can use a sprinkling of history to help readers understand what is affecting the life of the author-subject, but don’t let the story get bogged down in the nitty-gritty. Battlefield Doc, although a war memoir, does not include many dates or place names because they are not important to the actual stories, and since it is not a (boring) history book. When you write, “talk” to your readers as though they are your new friends. I hope the older audience did pay a little attention to Dr. Brand’s writing advice, in case any of them decides to write a memoir.

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About moonbridgebooks

Co-author of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, a WWII Japan memoir of her mother's childhood; Co-author/Editor of Battlefield Doc, a medic's memoir of combat duty during the Korean War; life writing enthusiast; loves history and culture (especially Japan), and cats
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