This is a Building Blocs post with a focus on the craft of memoir, from Susan Shapiro.


“You don’t want to start your book with rage and end with rage,” I told Kenan.

“Why not?” he asked. “What if that’s the truth?”

It was hard arguing with a stubborn macho Balkan male, let alone my coauthor chronicling how, as a kid, he’d barely survived the Bosnian war.

“Start in one emotional place and wind up somewhere else,” I repeated the advice of a seasoned magazine editor. “I want to be surprised.”

“What about Leaving Las Vegas?”

“Well, that was based on a novel. Fiction is different,” I told him. “And the hero started out alive and ended up dead. That’s moving somewhere.”

Lack of change was the biggest problem I saw in early drafts of personal essays, memoirs and nonfiction book proposals by my students. One undergraduate wrote about his alcoholism, but continued drinking. A middle-aged woman depicted her frustrating dating exploits, while remaining frustrated and single. Another chronicled her depression while she was still depressed. None of these pieces were published. Being static and stuck is boring. Editors and agents I knew insisted that endings needed transformation, growth, movement, reinvention, cathartic revelation or an epiphany. Changing was difficult; readers wanted to be moved and transformed vicariously. I constantly suggested to my classes that they quit an addiction, do therapy, take action, or learn something – anything - that could enhance or shake up their stagnant conclusions.

Yet some subjects offered no closure. Kenan was a sardonic 30-year-old US citizen who’d survived the Christian Serb’s ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslims like himself in 1992. As a Jewish journalism professor who’d lost relatives in the Holocaust, I saw him as the male Muslim Anne Frank who’d lived to tell the story. He still seemed traumatized by what he’d witnessed. I encouraged him to get it down on paper. He had an amazing memoir and poetic turn of phrase, though he’d never written before and English was his second language. After a section I helped him publish attracted the interest of a literary agent, Kenan asked me to coauthor his memoir The Bosnia List. For two years, we worked together closely. He still seethed recalling his neighbor Petra stealing clothes from his mother and his beloved karate coach pounding on his door with an AK-47 shouting “You have one hour to leave or be killed,” and putting his dad and brother in a concentration camp. Kenan had recently taken his first trip back to Bosnia in 20 years, armed with a list of 12 betrayers to confront.

Reading the proposal, our book editor told him, “I admire your ability to hold a grudge so long. I’m so good at holding grudges myself that I hold them on behalf of others.”

Yet as a memoirist, optimist and writing teacher who’d helped eighty students publish books in the last decade, I felt we needed a dramatic arc. I’d become Kenan’s mentor, femme Freud and Jewish mother who wanted him to overcome his painful past. I hoped it would lead to an emotional transformation.

“The Serbs didn’t officially lose the war. They never acknowledged what they did or apologized. I’ll never forgive them for massacring more than 100,000 of my people. Our motto is: never forget, never forgive,” insisted Kenan.

Desperate for a redemptive conclusion, I probed Kenan about Schindler’s List, his mother’s favorite movie. They’d watched it in Connecticut together before she’d died of cancer. “Remember the bad people who hurt us, but don’t forget the good people who saved us,” she’d whispered. Kenan had sarcastically responded, “I can count the good Serbs on one finger.” I pushed him to list every Serb who helped his family. He reluctantly recalled 12 people, among them a neighbor who offered bread, a war criminal who protected his dad in the camp and a bus driver who waited an hour in a snowstorm to help them escape. Reading it the first time made me cry. He seemed as awe-struck by his new insight as I was. The agent and editor loved it. The second list became the last page of the book.

As Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I think.” I recalled my student Giselle Perez’s essay on having to share a bed with her mother because she lived with 19 Dominican relatives. I scrawled on her paper “needs a better take-away.” Just as she finished her revision, an uncle moved out and she got her own bed. “Try it out,” I said. After one night alone, she couldn’t sleep and missed her mother. “That’s your ending!” I was thrilled it became her first publication. Sometimes just attempting to create an arc in your work will help you find one in real life.

Or maybe not. When The Bosnia List came out, I was excited to share the good press.

“Do not post those reviews online. My countrymen will hate me.” Kenan sounded tortured.

“But they’re raves,” I insisted, upset that after two years of intense work, he wanted to delete the kind of reviews I’d dreamt of for three decades.

One critic called it “a poignant, powerful look at forgiveness.” A journalist titled his piece ‘Just Enough Forgiveness’. Another found it “a riveting account of love, hope and forgiveness.” Problem was: Kenan felt this implied he’d pardoned the wrong people.

When a review claimed Kenan “eventually forgives,” he wrote a letter to the editor. He clarified that he’d forgiven his father for not getting them out of danger sooner, and his mother for getting sick, and acknowledged 12 Serbs who’d helped his family. But he never forgave the former Serbian president or others who perpetrated crimes against humanity.

As Kenan lamented the misunderstood response from the press, I blamed myself, guilty that I’d pushed for a cathartic end that was being misinterpreted. Perhaps I’d confused readers by titling a chapter where Kenan dreamt of confronting his karate coach ‘In Dreams Begins Forgiveness,’ after Delmore Schwartz’s short story ‘In Dreams Begin Responsibilities’ (a title Schwartz took from a Yeats poem. )

“Nobody can forgive genocide,” Kenan insisted.

I showed him a recent New York Times Magazine piece on Rwanda survivors who forgave their attackers 20 years after a million Tutsi were massacred, along with a news story about Holocaust survivor and Night memoirist Elie Wiesel who’d successfully pushed the German government to ask forgiveness in 2000.

“Written by Americans,” Kenan accused.

It was true, both articles were. As Americans, were we too quick to tie up horrific stories with cathartic yellow ribbons? Suddenly I feared we were imposing a naive philosophy on unfathomable atrocities we couldn’t understand, hungry for a happy ending. Kenan was right. I’d been insensitive, too simplistic, reductive.

 Yet I still believed that writing was empowering and could turn your worst experience into the most beautiful. “If not forgiveness, is there any statement of action that could help you, your family and country heal?” I asked.

He conceded there might be. He wrote what he’d like to hear from the Serbian government: “Our administration was responsible for the war and your family’s exile. We apologize for the genocide and crimes against humanity committed on your people. We will disclose all hidden mass graves and educate our younger generations about the violence our administration perpetrated. We will be part of an ethnically mixed country and start paying financial reparations towards those whose relatives were killed or who were wounded or exiled.”

Simply contemplating seemed to open up the potential for a better ending. Kenan elucidated his stance when his book received attention in his homeland, where it will soon be published in his native tongue. I encouraged him to share the reparations he wants with the press, reminding him, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

“Good line,” he said, intrigued by the cliché he’d never heard. “I should write that down.”



Ways to Enhance Your Dramatic Arc:

  1. FAMOUS LAST WORDS: Juxtapose your first paragraph with your last paragraph. Do they have the same emotional tone? Has the narrator changed? If not: rewrite. David Mamet advises all writers to ask “Who wants what from whom?” on every page. So at least make sure that there has been a change in what your narrator wants.
  2. STUDY THE CLASSICS: Reread your favorite essays and memoirs, underline and circle the transformations that you enjoyed the most.
  3. IMAGINE: If you are stuck at a certain outcome, shut your eyes and envision where you would like to be. Sometimes just relaying your fantasy about change shows enough emotional growth for an ending.
  4. TAKE ACTION: “The only way to change is to change. Understanding follows,” according to my psychologist. So if you’re chronicling a bad habit or destructive pattern in your life - stop it! Go cold turkey for a week – or even just 24 hours. Then see how you feel. Many great essays and memoirs revolve around the cessation of smoking, drinking, drugging, overeating, shopping, gambling, or sleeping around. Sometimes you have to overcome a problem to have something interesting to say about it.
  5. CLASS ACT: Study with a teacher whose work you admire, then ask good questions and listen carefully to their criticism of your pages. Tobias Wolfe, Zadie Smith, Phillip Lopate, Dani Shapiro, Daphne Merkin and Salman Rushdie all teach in different programs around the world. Fifty percent of my journalism students get published during my classes. Just being in an educational environment with people doing what you want to do increases your chances of improving and getting published. Many top authors, editors and agents do seminars and panels at conferences around the country that are open to the public.
  6. WORKSHOP: Join a weekly writing group with tough critics who’ll challenge you. If you can’t find one open, start one yourself. I started two groups, so every Thursday night and Sunday afternoon I get immediate feedback on whether my pages are digging deep enough.
  7. GHOST BUSTERS: Before you submit anything to newspapers or magazine editors or a literary agent, hire a ghost editor to read/edit your pages with such specific questions as: Is there enough movement in my story? Does it need more of a transformation at the end?
  8. SHRINK WRAP: Since nonfiction has to be true and many personal essays and memoirs are about emotional issues, try seeing a therapist (even just once) to ask questions and see if there’s any exercises you can do to unlock or unblock you.
  9. INTERVIEWS: Ask tough questions to someone close to you who’ll tell you the truth. In my memoir Five Men Who Broke My Heart, I questioned ex-boyfriends about what really went wrong when we’d dated. In a book on my mentors, I interviewed former bosses and teaches on our former connection. Both led to illumination – and book deals!


Susan Shapiro, a Manhattan writing professor,  is the bestselling  author of 8 books and coauthor of The Bosnia List recently published by Penguin Books. You can follow her on Twitter at @Susanshapironet

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Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.