Writing Memoir: An Interview with Richard Hoffman Posted on May 23, 2011 by Lisa Tener
Richard Hoffman is a featured presenter at the Ocean State Summer Writing Conference and one of my favorites. Each June, I look forward to the Ocean State Summer Writing Conference sponsored by the University of Rhode Island–both as a presenter and a participant. I especially enjoy the first two days of Advanced Workshops–always with great writing teachers.
My first year, I took a memoir workshop with Richard Hoffman–not so much to write my own memoir, which I can’t help thinking would be fairly dull, but to support my clients and students writing memoir. The workshop was great fun and I was actually surprised to enjoy what I wrote.
When I heard Richard is returning to URI once I again, I thought it a great opportunity to ask him about writing memoir, particularly about the challenges that come up in writing a memoir.
Lisa: What would you say are the things that makes a memoir great?
Richard Hoffman: The very best memoirs remain intent on an inquiry the author is making into his or her life and times. Who what and where are only the starting point, the real questions are how and why. When you begin to follow that line of inquiry, it leads to real discovery. You come to understand how the forces shaping your life, the life you have in common with others, made you who you are and the world you live in what it is. I’m always telling my students two things: Don’t write about your life — write from your life. And don’t be content to turn your life into ink — turn it into art.
Lisa: I like that–I’ve often thought that when you’re truly writing in that place of inspiration, you’re learning something new. That’s when writing opens up. Richard, what advice would you give someone who is just starting to write a memoir–where to start writing?
Richard Hoffman: Wherever you can! Think of a spiderweb. You can hook that first thread anywhere it will hold. The important thing is to not think in linear terms at all when you’re writing. Write scenes. Write pages of reflection. Write what’s available to you to write today. Memory’s mercurial; if something offers itself to be explored, explore it while it’s “live”. If you shoo it away because you’re convinced that today you’re going to work on, say, Chapter 7, it might not come back! That’s my experience anyway.
Write modularly in the order that presents itself to you. You’re exploring, looking for clues, praying for happy accidents. Trying to uncover what was hidden (sometimes by the “official story” you’ve been telling yourself for years). A book is read from the upper left-hand corner of page one to the lower right-hand corner of the last page — but that is not how it is written! At least not in my experience. Composition happens only later, when you’ve turned over every rock and shaken every tree. The next stage, fashioning a story, a narrative, from the parts comes pretty late in the process.
Lisa: How many flashbacks can a memoir have? How do you prevent it from getting confusing if there are flashbacks? Are there any “tricks” to making the flashbacks flow smoothly?
Richard: This is a term that comes from fiction and film studies and even there it is much abused. A memoir need only be linear insofar as a reader must know whether an event happened before or after another event. That’s pretty easily signaled and can be done artfully and gracefully with transitions. I wouldn’t worry much about this. Things tend to fall in place, and when they do you end up with insight or, often, further questions that will lead you to deeper understandings. When you’ve got a complete draft, give it to a few of your best reader friends and see if anyone complains that they’re lost. A writer needs good colleagues, not necessarily other writers although that’s a good thing, but a few readers you can trust to be critical and encouraging, who are on your team but won’t let you slide, either.
Lisa: I read Half the House after taking your workshop and found it profoundly moving. I imagine it would have been hard to write–I think especially of your brother’s illness and death and the abuse you suffered. What was the most challenging thing about writing Half the House?
Richard Hoffman: Uncovering the story I was telling, and learning what of my life was and was not part of that story. There is always a principle of selection at work in a book. You cannot get your whole life and all its experiences into it, so you have to find the story you need to tell. Once you have that — and getting to that point may take a long long time and hundreds of pages — then anything that is extraneous to the story has to go. I had already decided I would be candid about the abuse in my boyhood, but that’s an event, not a story. The story is how and why, always how and why, and also the consequences of events.
Lisa: How did you deal with that challenge?
Richard Hoffman: I walked away from the book when I had to, and worked on it when I had the time and the psychic energy. In the meantime I wrote short stories, essays, poems. It’s important to have other pots on other burners. There has to be some joy in writing or it is just tedious. I don’t mean you have to write silly, falsely cheerful stuff. But if every time you go to your writing desk you’re staring into the abyss, you’ll either quit doing it or become sick. I’m serious about this.
Writing memoir, even if you’re not writing about atrocity, is a trip to the underworld where you begin to see, in the dark, the dead who preceded you; you start to be able to see the roots of things. You’ll probably even see many of your self-protective illusions for what they really are. It takes a toll. You have to be careful for your bodily and psychological health, and you have to take care to retain the pleasure of writing, so having other writing projects is extremely important.
Lisa: Other challenges?
Richard Hoffman: I guess one other challenge (among many, too many) is that most people think a memoir is when you just write down what happened so what’s the big deal? Anybody can do that. Well, everybody has a story, that’s true; but not everyone can write a memoir, and even fewer can write a really good one. Like any art, it takes years of study and reading and trying and failing. The prevailing view is simplistic. It’s like looking at Edward Steichen’s photographs and saying, “What the hell, I have a camera on my cellphone; why don’t I go for a walk in the woods and take some pictures?”
My advice to someone writing a memoir is not to talk too much about it. People will not understand what it takes and they’ll be forever asking you, “You finished that book yet?” when what they mean is, “What’s taking you so long?”
Richard Hoffman is author of the celebrated memoir Half the House; the short story collection Interference and Other Stories; and three poetry collections: Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Motton Book Award; and most recently, Emblem. He teaches at Emerson College and currently serves as chair of PEN New England. He will be presenting an advanced workshop and a master class at the University of Rhode Island’s Ocean State Summer Writing Conference June 23-25.
Yesterday, Loretta West of Spokane, WA, asked, "Is art somehow diminished when the artist doesn't actually do the work? These days, some artists have others doing their work for them. I've always believed that 'Heart to Hand' was important, but what if I was physically unable to paint again? Could I have a staff paint my ideas for me?"
Thanks, Loretta. To bring some perspective, I passed the question on to my friend Joe Blodgett. "Absolutely disgusting," he blurted through his Scotch. "Art is one of the last things individuals can fully make with their hands, and they need to do it on their own. When artists pass their work onto others, it's just like those plops that steers make all over Texas."
"Fair enough," I said, pouring him another shot, "But what about the disabled artist Angela de la Cruz who suffered a stroke at age 46? Unable to speak well or move her hands properly, she sends out daily instructional emails to her five employees. Her work won the Turner Prize last year."
"She's confusing the making of art with the making of money," said Joe. "And so are those corruptible Turner-Prizers. It's called 'extended pocket-lining.' She's looking for fame and dealers, not art, and all the fools are on her bandwagon."
"I suppose you don't think much of the New York artist Alexander Gorlizki either," I said. "His Indian-influenced work is made for him by seven inexpensive painters in Jaipur, India. Gorlizki prefers not to be involved in the actual painting. He claims it would take him twenty years to get as good as his chief painter Riyaz Uddin. To Gorlizki's credit, he sometimes flies over to see how his work is going."
"Inexcusably rotten," said Joe.
Then some big names are also rotten," I said. "Damien Hirst has assistants. Robert Motherwell had 'em. Andy Warhol had a 'Factory.' Jeff Koons currently employs hundreds. Koons' works are labour intensive and he feels he doesn't need to do the labour any more. The conceptualist-minimalist Sol LeWitt sketched a grandiose idea on his deathbed and had 16 artists produce it three years after he took off for the big studio in the sky."
"Posthumous poseur," said Joe. "Even Michelangelo, Rubens and Rembrandt had studios full of helpers," I said.
"Hamburger helpers," said Joe. Joe is basically a nice guy. I have the feeling that if he could paint pictures, he'd do them all by himself.
PS: "It liberates me not being encumbered by technical proficiency." (Alexander Gorlizki)
Esoterica: Jeff Koons runs a vast studio in a businesslike way, demanding efficiency from his army of managers, deputy managers and workers. As in a beehive, there's a division of labour. Some workers mix paint while others put it on. Electric hoists move things up and down while Koons watches every move, and, according to him, checks every stroke. "It's about the production of the work," he says. "I need my workers to stay focused."
Coach Sherrie says: If only I believed this was moral, I'd be a millionaire by now. I have tons of ideas a week. If I could pass the ideas to someone else to make for me, I could quit my day job!
Filled under : backstory , beginnings , Characters , conflict
Just for the record: I hate beginnings. The first fifty pages of my novels are inevitably torture to write. I’m always sure I’ve lost my touch, convinced that every successful story in the past was a fluke, absolutely certain that I’ll never make these opening scenes gripping enough to hook a reader. And it’s no wonder. Beginnings are hard. And important.
They are the sales pitch for your entire story. Doesn’t matter how slam-bang your finish is, doesn’t matter how fresh your dialogue is, doesn’t matter if your characters are so real they tap dance their way off the pages. If your beginning doesn’t fulfill any of a number of requirements, chances are readers won’t get far enough to discover your story’s hidden merits.
Unfortunately for us harried writers no surefire pattern exists for the perfect opening. However, most good beginnings do share a couple traits. Following are nine.
1. Don’t open before the beginning. Mystery author William G. Tapley points out, “Starting before the beginning… means loading up your readers with background information they have no reason to care about.” Don’t dump your backstory—however vital to the plot—into your reader’s lap right away. No one wants to hear someone’s life story the moment after they meet them.
2. Open with characters, preferably the protagonist. Even the most plot-driven tales inevitably boil down to characters. The personalities that inhabit your stories are what will connect with readers. If you fail to connect with them right off the bat, you can cram all the action you want into your opening, but the intensity and the drama will still fall flat.
3. Open with the inciting event: the catalyst. Every story is based on an “inciting event,” the first domino, which, when knocked over, starts the chain of dominoes tumbling. This catalyst is the moment your story officially begins, and, presumably, it’s also the first moment of high interest. Use that to your advantage and get right to the point.
4. Open with conflict. No conflict, no story. Conflict doesn’t always mean nuclear warheads going off, but it does demand that your characters be at odds with someone or something right from the get go. Conflict keeps the pages turning, and turning pages are nowhere more important than in the beginning.
5. Open with movement. Openings need more than action, they need motion. Motion gives readers a sense of progression and, when necessary, urgency. Whenever possible, open with a scene that allows your characters to keep moving, even if they’re just walking down the street.
6. Open with something that makes the reader ask a question. Unanswered questions fuel intrigue; intrigue keeps the reader’s interest. If you can present a situation that immediately has your reader asking questions, you’ve significantly upped the odds that he’ll keep reading.
7. Anchor the reader to avoid confusion. As a caveat to #6, make sure you have your readers asking the right questions. You want to give them enough information so they can ask intelligent, informed questions, not “What the heck is going on here?!” As soon as possible, anchor them with the pertinent facts: who the characters are, what the current dilemma is, etc.
8. Orient the reader with an “establishing” shot. Anchoring the reader can often be done best by taking a cue from the movies and opening with an “establishing” shot. If done skillfully, you can present the setting and the characters’ positions in it in as little as a sentence or two.
9. Set the tone. Because your opening chapter sets the tone for your entire story, you need to give the reader accurate presuppositions about the type of tale he’s going to be reading. Your beginning needs to set the stage for the inevitable denouement—without, of course, giving it away. If you can nail all nine of these points in your opening chapter, your readers are likely to keep the pages turning all the way into the wee hours of the morning!