I've driven past the Kerrytown Concert House countless times since I've been in Ann Arbor but I've always wondered what went on inside. Yesterday, the answer to that question was: Dave Eggers. Yes, that Dave Eggers, author of the best-selling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, founder of the fantastically original online lit magÂ McSweeney's and its publishing house, and founder of 826 Valencia, the parent organization of, among others, 826 Michigan. In fact, Eggers was in town for a couple of fundraisers for 826 Michigan, including a two-hour workshop entitled Writing & Publishing the Memoir, which I attended with my friends Fara and Jason. Let me start by saying that if some part of you is saying, "Man, Dave Eggers seems so annoying on account of how accomplished he is," the pisser is that he is extremely affable and in the intimate setting of the Kerrytown Concert House seemed genuine and generous with his passion for and knowledge about writing.
I was not expecting him to come across as...accessible as he did. Why? Probably because writers are, generally speaking, odd sorts and, frankly, if I had that man's success I think we all know my ego would be off the charts. But Dave Eggers is not me, as we all also know. He is, however, my age. In case you wanted to, say, compare accomplishments and, say, beat yourself up about it.
Eggers is also kind of dreamy in person. Maybe even a little McDreamy, with twinkly eyes and deep dimples when he smiles, plus a headful of thick, slightly unruly curly hair. Just sayin'. He kicked off the workshop -- which was really more of an informal discussion with questions and answers volleyed back and forth throughout -- by presenting a large pad of paper, propped on an easel. On the first page in large slightly slanted green marker, he had written: "Why? GoodÂ Lord, why?" Indeed, it's probably a question every memoir writer asks him or herself. Or, at least, should ask. Those who seem to be 100% convinced that their story is worth telling in the first place are often misguided.
So why, then, do we have the drive to tell our stories? According to Eggers we share our stories because we're supposed to. Language, paper, sentences, words -- they all exist for a purpose and we are, at our core, human beings who communicate our stories to one another. "It's much less logical to not tell your story than to tell it," he said. And once I battled through the double negatives there, I concluded that he may be right. "To not write your story own story is a very strange thing. We have a limited amount of time on this earth."
Eggers credits the memoir boom of the past decade to the fact that people are waking up to the fact that their story needs to be told. "They need to write themselves into existence," he said, talking specifically about working with kids and encouraging them to tell their own stories. "This is the greatest power that they have."
Eggers also said this: "You learn everything when you write your story." I think that's definitely true for me. Writing is a process of discovery and whether it's nonfiction or fiction, I rarely approach a piece of paper with any certainty about where I'm headed. There's a wonderful and frustrating magic to it that's nearly impossible to describe to someone who doesn't have that...thing that writers have.
Frankly, Eggers said a lot. Too much for me to convey here, but here are some ideas he tossed out there, which may prove useful to any of you toying with the idea of writing your own story:
- Memoir is a lot more democratic than other forms of writing. It belongs to anyone and everyone.
- Decide if you are writing your story for you (and your family, ancestors) or for them (readers). I agree that's important, but I also know that most people who want to write memoir are mostly interested in writing best-selling memoir and I think few people are enthusiastic about the idea of battling through the process only to have it sit in a dusty attic until your grandkids uncover it. In fact, most people I know who say they want to be writers don't even want to write -- they want to have written. And that's kind of a huge distinction.
- Start small. Pick your one best anecdote and start by getting that down on paper. (Memoir is, after all, essentially a collection of linked anecdotes.)
- The #1 problem with a lot of memoir is it reads like a pity party. Recount honestly. No weeping. Write scenes like commentary with as much emotional detachment as possible. Cut back on your anger. In dealing with adversaries, Eggers advised, "The villainy comes through if you just write down the facts."
- Then he contradicted himself a little. If your writing is driven by passion and anger, Eggers suggested getting the first draft out of you with all the anger and passion you have inside -- and then go back and cut it all back.
- Russell Baker calls memoir "inventing the truth" and Eggers himself says memoir "is an incredible amount of fiction." In the nonfiction I've written -- and even that I've read -- I've always struggled with the idea that scenes are recounted and recreated, characters combined. Eggers said of memoir: "It's truth but it's not fact." That's an important distinction for me and is helping to shape the way I think about some of my writing -- the idea that you can apply fiction techniques and recreate stuff so that it may not be factually accurate but still contains and represents the truth. Freeing notion and, as I'm sure James Frey would agree, a potentially slippery slope.
- So how do you cope with the reader's trust? Eggers suggests using notes, footnotes, and indexes if necessary to let the reader know where you stand from the start. You strike a bargain with the readers, let them know what you've done, how and why.
- Going back to the idea of anger and vengeance -- which seem to be all-too-common motives for memoir writing -- Eggers suggests extreme caution. Books are permanent and "anyone who gets hurt is going to get hurt for many years." What you put down on paper, what you publish, will never go away. Even stuff you write in passing can have much greater impact on the people you're writing about than you'd ever imagine.
- Eggers suggests showing drafts to your family (or whoever is featured in your memoir) as you go along. You need their help to make sure you have things factually accurate, but also to make sure your perspective is fair. You may not agree with everything your family remembers (and vice versa), but Eggers suggests measuring each battle carefully. Consider the consequences and ask yourself, is it worth it as a writer?
- It may take years before you develop enough perspective to write about certain periods of your life. You have to be far enough away to see it with a dispassionate distance to really know the shape of your story. "Usually to have the distance to see a shape," Eggers said, "it's going to take a long time."
- Show your work to people as you go. Pick people to whom the story matters and other people who don't have anything invested in the story. Eggers suggests having five to ten readers for any story or piece. If you're writing about a specific topic, pick an expert on that topic and see if it rings true to them. Think about people you know who seem like your ideal readers and give it to them, people you need to like or appreciate it. Make sure you knock the socks off your 5-10 readers before you even think about showing it to an agent or publisher or submitting it somewhere.
- What if not much has happened to you in your life? Eggers says there's an inverse relationship here - the less that happens to you, the better writer you need to be. "You have to breathe life into the little things -- that's what being a writer is." Also, know what your story is. Know what the interesting part is, know the motifs of your life.
- In terms of publishing, be honest with yourself about where your work belongs. Eggers believe there's no better time to be trying, with more literary magazines abounding than ever before. Don't submit your work just anywhere. If you think you're not going to bother writing unless it winds up in the pages of Harper's, you'll miss out on a million other opportunities.
- And about that whole writing thing. I love to quote Dorothy Parker (who doesn't?) who said, "The art of writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat." I cannot tell you how much I appreciated Eggers' honesty when he said that for every four hours he spends at his computer, he estimates that he gets about 45 minutes of real writing done. The rest is farting around, delaying and procrastinating. That's why, he said, it's important to give yourself specific chunks of time to write -- "acres of time, as far as the eye can see." Goals are useful too. Hemingway, he said, set a daily word count goal of 400 words and when he'd met that, he quit. Of course, then he went out and drank and eventually killed himself, but that's probably not the point to take from that.
Eggers mentioned the following works during his talk as essential memoir reading, in addition to Frank McCourt's seminal Angela's Ashes:
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy
The Devil is in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood by Jennifer Traig. (Traig is a volunteer at 826 Valencia and is working with Eggers on a book about writing memoir that will be published soon by 826.)
Oh, the Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey
Smith MemoirÂ - a website devoted to the genre of short memoir
Also, not memoir, but worth noting, Eggers called The Known World by Edward P. Jones the "best American novel in the last ten years."