Memoirs: They’re Not Biographies by Dennis Milam Bensie
I just returned from the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans where I was a presenter. I, along with a couple of dozen other writers, was given the opportunity to do a ten minute reading from one of my published books (you were timed and honked if you went over ten minutes).
This was a big weekend for me because I had never been to the three day festival, which took place at the famous Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street. The hotel was the perfect setting for a writing conference because it had been a hub of literary personalities. The literary guest list also included Tennessee Williams, WIlliam Faulkner, Ernest Hemmingway and more recently Ann Rice and John Grishman. Truman Capote claimed to have been born in the Hotel Monteleone (a fact that was disputed; his mother was merely pregnant with him while living in the hotel).
I write memoirs. Most of my short stories could be considered memoirs. One of the many panel discussions I attended at the festival was called From Life to the Page: Turning Memory Into Narrative. I took many personal notes during all the seminars last weekend, but the most important notes I took came from quotes I heard during this memoir driven class.
“...All memories are fiction.”
It’s true. Everything you remember is fiction because it is your unique perspective. Your memory of an event is as individual as a fingerprint. Truman Capote probably wasn’t intending to lie about the site of his birth. Is it too much of a stretch for the Capote to think he was born in the symbolic hotel? It’s a better image to think of him being born at the Monteleone, rather than in a nearby hospital. A writer of memoirs has permission to rethink the literal usage of the word “born”.
“...Worry about the truth. Not the facts.”
A memoir is not to be confused with a biography. Facts are sometime crucial but should not completely dictate the Art.
The two quotes I list completely resonate with me as a memoir writer. I am sometimes asked how I can write more than one memoir. It’s not that I have had a long life of travel and adventure. It’s tone, style and perspective on certain events that give birth to memoirs, not merely where I was and what I did on a certain day.
Another thing that was discussed in the memory discussion from Saints and Sinners was that sometimes the best writing can spring from the smallest of events. Its possible to write a wonderful memoir story from something as simple as watching your mother brush her hair or the neighbor child tying their shoe. It’s not always necessary to know what Mom’s hair or the kid’s really looked like in memoir writing. Save the facts for the biography.
I wrote my first memoir, SHORN: TOYS TO MEN more linear in style. Everything ties together without any breaks in the book’s theme. It’s approach to storytelling reads like a fictional novel. Not to say that it reads as untrue or false. I use an emotional tone to tell the story of growing up with abuse and mental illness.
ONE GAY AMERICAN, my second memoir, proved challenging. The book is a bunch of vignette’s about my life growing up gay in the USA. In a few passages I told the reader the same story from SHORN. But it was my job to write the overlapped stories in a different way for each book, despite the fact that the facts were the same.
One of the biggest story overlaps in both of my memoirs surrounds my three year marriage when I was nineteen. I couldn’t just leave it out of the second book because I already wrote about it in the first.
I spent a simple paragraph or two in SHORN talking about giving my wife a heirloom bride doll for our wedding. My approach in ONE GAY AMERICAN was to be more poetic or symbolic and concentrate on smaller details of the event. I got to elaborate and write more about what the doll meant. It turned out I was able to expand and turn the story of the bride doll into a whole vignette of it’s own in my second memoir using metaphors and other dramatic techniques that I didn’t bother with in the first book.
My biggest advice for someone who wants to write their memoir is to
find a great style of storytelling that suits your life and what you want to say. Try an experiment:
Take one event or fact and write three treatments of the same story trying to make it as different as possible each of the three times. Don’t worry so much about the facts: worry more about what you want your reader to remember when they finish your story. A good memoir will stay with it’s reader a long time after the last page is read and inspire them to think and feel rather than teach them facts or information.
I happen to choose as my reading selection for the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival the haunting chapter from ONE GAY AMERICAN about the heirloom bride doll. I was impressed that all the memoirists that read from their books each had very different styles of telling their personal stories.
I wonder if Ernest Hemmingway or Tennessee Williams worked on or ever read their memoir at the Hotel Monteleone. The two author’s styles are, no doubt, very different.
(Dennis Milam Bensie reading from ONE GAY AMERICAN at the Hotel Monteleone on Sunday, May 26, 2013)
About the Author:
Dennis Milam Bensie grew up in Robinson, Illinois where his interest in the arts began in high school participating in various community theatre productions. Bensie’s first book, Shorn: Toys to Men was nominated for the Stonewall Book Award, sponsored by the American Library Association. It was also a pick in the International gay magazine The Advocate as “One of the Best Overlooked Books of 2011″. The author’s short stories have been published by Bay Laurel, Everyday Fiction, and This Zine Will Change Your Lifeand he has also been a feature contributor for The Good Men Project. One Gay Americanis his second book with Coffeetown Press and it was chosen as a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Indie Excellence Book Awards. He was a presenter at the 2013 Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. Dennis lives in Seattle with his three dogs.