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January 10, 2013

Slate: How to write a memoir

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

The writer does not have to take on huge dramatic subjects to engage the reader's interest, though there is of course a natural interest in huge important subjects (See Christopher Hitchens' excellent "Mortality," or Harold Brodkey's "This Wild Darkness.") A brilliant or resourceful writer like Gary Shteyngart can entertain his reader with a subject as inherently plotless and unexciting as a plane delay. The subject, with apologies to hopeful suffering young writers, doesn't have to be inherently extreme.

4. In fact, even if your subject is extreme or shocking, it won't be interesting in any but the most prurient terms, unless it is written well, and surprisingly. For instance, the novelist Darin Strauss' "Half a Life" is an excellent reflection on his experience of killing a girl in a car accident in high school. But it is excellent because it is controlled, because the details are as carefully selected, the pacing as carefully moderated as that of any novel. The reason the book is so good is that he manages to tell the reader something she doesn't know or can't imagine; he gets beyond the generic, the cliché, which a surprising number of published personal writers never do. There is one moment when the teen-age Darin, on the roadside after the accident, in shock, leans down on the ground, with his head in his hands, like an Olympic athlete overcome with emotion, to impress some pretty girls who happen to be standing there too. His inclusion of vivid, unsettling, surprising moments like this lifts the book to its higher plane of observation, its position as art rather than sheer confession.

5.The standards of craft in personal writing should not be lower than in fiction. There is no reason why something true should be sloppily or boringly written. Many writers seem to feel that they are "expressing themselves" if they just get their feelings down on the page, but expressing yourself is not enough. Toward this point, Joan Didion, one of the most admired personal writers in American prose, said this extraordinary thing in a Paris Review interview: "When I am working on a book, I constantly retype my own sentences. Every day I go back to page one and just retype what I have. It gets me into a rhythm. Once I get over maybe a hundred pages, I won't go back to page one, but I might go back to page fifty-five or twenty, even. But then every once in a while I feel the need to go to page one again and start rewriting. At the end of the day, I mark up the pages I've done — pages or page — all the way back to page one." She is not, in other words, dashing things off. She is not mistaking writing for therapy — the salient difference between the page and a therapist's office being that not every thought in your head, every tiny moment of heartbreak, every fleeting fantasy or disappointment, is interesting to your reader.

Roiphe, a journalism professor at New York University, is the author most recently of "Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages," and the forthcoming "In Praise of Messy Lives."

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