A review of Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays and Life into Literature
Bill Roorbach is the young, fun professor who just wants you to succeed. Writing Life Stories is a craft book for memoirists much like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is a craft book for fiction writers. Don’t be fooled by the very basic content in the beginning, such as discussions of the over use of dialogue tags, adverbs and adjectives. Stick with him and he tackles deeper studies such as clarity, motion, density, rhythm, precision, texture, and urgency.
Roorbach uses, as tools, real students. Both the students’ work, and their attitudes and approaches to assignments, are used to give the reader the experience of being in his classroom, which is a far lighter experience than sitting in a desk in front of Gardner. The students Roorbach has chosen as guinea pigs represent a wide range of writing students: the overly self-assured, the reticent, the self-proclaimed bore, etc. To the reader, one of these personalities will be familiar.
Roorbach is Gardner without the snob element. He is forgiving, and hopes readers will try, even if they are sure to fail. He is encouraging rather than shaming. Humorous rather than self-congratulatory. He is more likely to point out what to do than what not to. “Just, trust me, is what I said, kind of lightly, as if it were a joke, and people took it that way… and we all mildly laughed, breaking the tension.”(26) Roorbach’s voice reads like a personal essay. His comfort with the genre is evident and gives the student the secure sense that he will not steer them wrong.
Roorbach presents several exercises in each chapter, which he suggests readers utilize as they read, as opposed to waiting until the end of the book. He hopes the exercises will develop a writer’s “critical eye.” Each one focuses on a specific element, with examples from his students. Gardner placed similar exercises in the appendix of The Art of Fiction. I found Roorbach’s approach more fluid, as I did not have to constantly turn back for references and examples.
The bulk of the book is about the development of voice, theme and ideas. If a writer is stressing about accuracy and the faultiness of memory, Roorbach suggests a hierarchy wherein accuracy is second to story. “Information is almost never the first goal of memoir; expression often is.”(13) and “Meaning takes precedence over mere accuracy, truth over mere facts.(14) I’m reminded of Stephen King’s On Writing when Roorbach says, “Idea is the deep and cool well from which the waters of theme and thesis are drawn.” On Writing has always been my favorite craft book, but as a work devoted specifically to the writing of life stories, Roorbach’s book has much to offer.
Roorbach’s theory of “cracking open” a scene is a concept that stuck with me. In my haste to write everything down, I have let a couple sentences stand for an entire scene and in so doing, left out important details and meaning. Cracking opena scene teaches a writer to see where s/he needs to expand into the here and now, to show the moments leading up to action with sensory detail. “Scene is nearly always what’s missing when a piece of creative nonfiction fails to come to life.” (45)Another interesting concept Roorbach tackles is the dual voice of the author in his present state, and, as the younger version of himself about which he writes. “The most important thing to note is how many layers really exist here, how it is possible to be both ironic and compassionate, how it is possible to mingle the present (the writer sitting at the desk remembering) and the past (the writer as a present-tense teen), the elegance of these sentences juxtaposed to the awkwardness of young adulthood.”(124)
There is plenty of practical advice as well, tackling subjects such as privacy, truth, disclaimers, legal matters and obligations. “A disclaimer can amend the contract with the reader.”(15) He provides several examples of disclaimers such as: Author’s note: This memoir is based on my experiences over a ten-year period. Names have been changed, characters combined, and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events. This example gives the writer plenty of camouflage to hide behind without having to present a memoir as fiction. He attempts to define the genre of personal essay: “I just mean that the author speaks as a person rather than as a disembodied voice of knowledge, that the writer speaks from the heart, with no great worries about so-called fairness.” In other words, memoir is about perspective. Another character might tell the same story in a completely different way. This concept helps to offset fears of misrepresentation or faulty memory. In the chapter entitled The Soul of the Genre(90) he discusses concerns implicit when writing about real people. These are ethical problems: “What do we owe our families? Our friends? Our lovers past and current? Our enemies?”(95) “How far do you go in the service of drama, for instance, or in the service of your prejudices? Do you leave out traits that don’t support your story or scenario? How can you tell when you’re going too far? When does memoir turn into prosecution? Invasion of privacy?”(34) These are not merely rhetorical concepts but ideas that need flushing out. Roorbach quotes Scott Russel Sanders from his essay The Singular First Person: “The I is a narrow gate.” We can only tell what we know, the way we experienced it. We are not responsible for the memories our characters may have or the impressions the same experiences left upon their psyches. I found, in these chapters, discussions about the practicality and challenges of writing memoir — the very things I find the most troubling about the process. That’s not to say Roorbach claims to have concrete answers but he is free with advice and warnings.
During his lectures, Roorbach recommends authors whose writing demonstrates his point. His lessons include examples from Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, Phillip Lopate, Gertrude Stein, Jack Kerouac, and Michel de Montaigne among others. Roorbach says,“Reading Montaigne, I feel time telescope and collapse, five hundred years like nothing; I feel very much in the presence of an interesting person, someone talking just to me. Pass the wine.”(74) Because Roorbach admires many of the author’s I enjoy, he has my attention. Because he addresses concerns that float around in the back of my mind distracting me from my writing, he has my gratitude as well.
I tried several of his exercises to more fully experience the lessons that were most relevant to my work. An especially enlightening exercise was Roorbach’s Map Exercise (32). in which he asks the writer to sketch a map of a childhood place, such as a neighborhood or school. The goal is to experience details long forgotten, and I was surprised how effective this method was, triggering little stories I hadn’t thought of in years. The next exercise I attempted was also visual but this time the goal was to stare into an old photograph and recreate the scene outside of it. Who were the others not pictured? What were the events leading up to that moment? And then, write it as a scene. The third exercise I chose was called, simply, Talk. (156) Roorbach challenges students to discuss the memoir with a potential reader or even a subject. How honest can you be? What makes you cringe? Or rather, who makes you cringe, and why? I found this exercise useful because I had been thinking about fairness, honesty, and my fear of the judgment from those about whom I’ve written.
If you’re struggling with these questions, do yourself a favor and keep a copy of Writing Life Stories in your writing space. Mine is dog-eared, high-lighted, and scribbled in. This is one book I never loan.
Roorbach, Bill. Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories in to Memoirs, Ideas into Essays and Life into Literature. N.p.: Writer’s Digest, 2008. Print.
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