We know (or can guess) how authors create characters in fiction — but how do you create a character in a memoir? Which means that the character is a real person, and you have to represent them truthfully, but also in a way that serves the book and engages the reader. What’s the trick there? For Moses Gates, author of Hidden Cities, the answer is to take everything about that real world person — and subtract.
If writing a novel is like painting a picture – taking a blank canvas (or page) and creating a work of art from scratch, then writing a memoir is kind of like sculpting. A sculpture starts with a huge chunk of rock, has a vision of what he or she wants to create, and then goes about fulfilling that vision by removing the excess rock until he or she has the sculpture that he or she wants. The trick in sculpting – and memoir writing – is what you take out. You create a compelling story not through building plot, character and story from the ground up, like you would in a novel, but by leaving out all the pointless, boring, or unrelatable bits of your life and memory.
Memoir is taken from the French word for “Memory,” and unless you’ve got a case of amnesia (that would be an interesting memoir!), everybody already has enough memories to fill several books. I had starting writing Hidden Cities shortly after turning 35, which meant I had logged a bit over 300,000 hours of material. Even if I couldn’t remember 99% of my life, that’s still 3000 hours to work with. That’s a lot. After all, James Joyce once famously wrote 265,000 words (which is three times the length of my book), about a single day in the life of one character.
The first cut is easy. After all, while you might be able to start a memoir with “I’m four years old, running after a garbage truck on the streets on Knoxville, Tennessee with my friend Eric Watson” (which is my earliest memory), if the next 50 pages don’t progress past your wonderful relationship with Ms. Dolan your kindergarten teacher, people are going to put the book down pretty quickly.
So I started with my base – crazy adventures, funny stories, poignant anecdotes. But that’s kind of like just seeing a random arm, toe, and left kneecap among the rock. An actual book has to have a story arc, theme, and/or sense of progression to it, otherwise it’s just a collection of essays. The stories were easy – creating this shape was a lot tougher.
First I started with the characters. Now, the reality is that we are, all of us, in real life, very complicated characters, far more complicated than are found on the pages of any book. We all have our moments of both whimsy and responsibility, triumph and failure, luck and misfortune. But we don’t have the luxury of showing all of these facets in all of our characters when writing – we have to distill. I went with a tried-and-true formula for writing memoirs, especially memoirs about subcultures, which is “average everyman follows brilliant but tragically flawed mentor into a strange new world,” (for anyone contemplating writing a subculture memoir, I cannot recommend following this format highly enough, but that’s another essay).
I chose to write myself as the average everyman, and the other characters more colorfully. But I could have just as easily wrote it the other way around. I devote an entire chapter in the middle of the book to a crazy night Steve (the brilliant but tragically flawed mentor) had, and me having to be responsible one who took care of him. I devote two lines in the epilogue to a very similar night where I was out-of-my-mind drunk, and Steve ended up having to be responsible for my inebriated idiocy. I shaped our characters by subtraction – by leaving out the second story, we weren’t simply two crazy guys doing crazy stuff, now there was some texture to our characters and their relationship.
The story arc was harder. I ended up writing it basically in three acts – the first one being “I wonder what’s out there to discover,” the second one being “holy moly, look at all this stuff out here to discover!” and the third being “well, this is great and all, but what’s the point of doing all of this?” Now, in actuality, I had all three feelings continually throughout the time this memoir took place. But by picking and choosing the types of memories and stories – funny, adventuresome, reflective – to leave in in the different sections, I was able to turn the book into more than just a collection of stories. I had found that connective tissue that molded the arm, toe, and left kneecap into something with a recognizable shape to it.
Finally, I decided I was going to have a theme – the theme of mental boundaries, how they limit us, and how they can be overcome. This was, basically, the decoration – a hat and some jewelry added to my sculpture, if you will, to give it some character and try to make it more than just another stone figure. Anytime I could remember – with traveling, with relationships, with ambitions – where I had encountered mental boundaries, I tried to work into the book. I wasn’t always able to do it (just like a jaunty fedora perched on the head of a sculpture of a Roman Centurion doesn’t really work), but the few times I was, I hope, served to tie the book together into a specific, easily recognizable work.
What all this did was serve to let me chip away at the bits of memory that didn’t serve any purpose. Some of the stories were tough to let go (especially if they made me seem really cool), but once you get that vision of the sculpture in the rock, you don’t keep a chunk of marble sticking out of the back just because it’s a really pretty chunk of marble. Of course, you do keep it and save it for its own sculpture someday.