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Hard Stories

At least three of my students this term have exceptionally difficult stories to tell and although my workshops and tutorials at NYU are not meant to be memoir exclusively, these writers are working on memoirs. Because of the urgency they feel, it’s difficult to move them into other forms of nonfiction writing such as reportage. So I let them be and encourage their efforts. Good memoir writing encapsulates all that is best in nonfiction writing today anyway—a strong sense of place, character development, dramatic tension, an open, direct narrative persona, lush description, and more.

When difficult personal stories surface in a workshop or a tutorial—the recent death of a loved one, incest, other traumas—I always ask the author if s/he has support outside the workshop or tutorial setting. Writing may be therapeutic but it is not therapy; student writers often confuse the two. More importantly, unless the writer develops insight, the writing will remain shallow and elliptical. When important information is with-held—either consciously or unconsciously—the reader feels that something is missing. That’s not easy to critique and may even feel manipulative though it isn’t; it’s self-censorship. One student this term admitted she was still protecting a perpetrator, that he was still alive and she was in touch with him. This being the case, how can the writing fly?

A rule I apply in my own memoir writing is this: If I can’t tell all of the story, I put the story away. There are other stories to write now. We can always return to what hurts when he have more skill, more understanding, and more courage.

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