Post #63 – Women’s Memoirs, Author Conversations – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
Memoir Author Laura Claridge Talks About Writing Her Memoir
It’s always enlightening to talk with an award-winning author to discuss turning her talents to writing about her own life rather than the lives of others. Today, Kendra Bonnet and I are pleased to welcome Laura Claridge to Women’s Memoirs. We invited Laura to share with us her experiences in writing her memoir: Mind Over Manners (Kindle Single)
Women’s Memoirs: As an award-winning author of biographies and other non-fiction books, you were used to examining the lives of others. I wonder if you’d share with our readers how the skills you had helped when you wrote your memoir — when you needed to examine your own life.
Though I can’t be sure, I suspect it’s almost impossible to spend years writing biographies without learning more about telling anyone’s story–even or especially one’s own. Each time I questioned my memory, I realized that’s the cost of perspectives drawn from the past. I’d check with my sister, for instance, and she’d recall an event as unfolding differently from me. Or even more puzzling, she’d assume something in our shared childhood meant x, while I had assumed it meant y. Thereupon I realized for real that there is no such thing as a memoir or a biography that is “true,” any more than one person’s recollection is “purer” than another’s. After I got over my disappointment, I pondered the benefits: I didn’t have to get my memories just right, since such veritude doesn’t exist.
Women’s Memoirs: One of the lives you have written about is Emily Post (Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners). I understand you were working on that biography when you were diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. How did Emily Post’s life and your life become intertwined? Since many memoir writers are not biographers, I wonder if you think reading rather than writing a biography at the same time as writing about one’s own life might be helpful or might be distracting.
I think reading biographies (if they’re well vetted as winners) while one works on a memoir allows for splendid (and instructive) companionship for the lonely writer. For that matter, you should be reading good literature–best sellers such as Anne Patchett’s State of Wonder or Stacy Schiff’s bio Cleopatra–all the time.
I was able to use Emily Post as a framing device, both in a Vogue piece I wrote last year and this current Kindle Single. Having Emily around gave me an automatic place to return any time I lost a sense of my structure.
Women’s Memoirs: In what way do you think writing a memoir helped or changed you? Do you feel you learned lessons about yourself? Did you feel that memoir writing versus other types of writing was a form of healing? What might other memoir writers expect as they explore their own lives?
To my surprise, I found it emotionally grueling to revisit such a traumatic period in my life. Reflecting now, I can’t imagine how I or anyone expects to get into painful memories without, well, feeling some pain. I suspect you should not continue with a memoir if you find yourself consistently emotionally wrung out from writing it. If you have a writers’ group or a therapist with whom you can talk, that might help. But bringing up trauma is always fraught. I healed a bit in realizing how mean my good intentioned (stepmother) really was to me, and how her false promises complicated the whole idea of trust for me. I had already worked on this relationship, however, and so the memoir just focused my anger better. (During all the episodes described in my Kindle Short, for instance, she never came to visit; she sent my sister instead.)
Women’s Memoirs: Book length is always an issue for a memoir writer. Some feel the need to cover everything. Others have a hard time deciding what belongs in the book and what should be left out. You chose to write quite a brief memoir — about 50 pages — and have published it as a Kindle single as you mentioned above (available through Amazon for $1.99). Can you share you thinking on the length of a memoir as well as your publishing decisions?
Many readers said they wanted more than my 50 pages, and someone in my writers’ group complained he felt I was “zooming along.” Probably the Singles are best concentrated upon a sub-subject; maybe I should have written only about my stem cell rescue, for instance. I do not, however, think that any full length memoir should be an autobiography instead: keep it focused. There’s always room for a sequel–or prequel, if you’d rather. But if you really mean to write the conventionally sized memoir, I think you should triple the length of my Kindle Single.
Want to know more about Laura Claridge? Here’s a little of her background:
She has authored several books, ranging from feminist theory to biography and popular culture of the 20th Century. Formerly an English professor, she has written Norman Rockwell: A Life (Random House/Modern Library 2001/2003) and Tamara de Lempicka: A Life of Deco and Decadence (Bloomsbury 2001/2003 [paperback]) and Clarkson Potter/Crown/Random House (1999). Her biography of American icon Emily Post, Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners (Random House/Modern Library 2008/2009), which was mentioned in the interview above, won the J. Anthony Lukas award administered jointly by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
She has been a frequent writer and reviewer for the national press, appearing in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Vogue, Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. Her books have been translated into Spanish, German, and Polish. She has appeared frequently on national media including NBC’s Today Show, CNN, BBC, CSPAN, and NPR.
Laura Claridge is currently working on Blanche, a biography of Blanche Knopf.