Marjorie Simmins is the award-winning author of Coastal Lives and Year of the Horse. Her latest is Memoir: Conversations and Craft, which is an instructive yet fully immersive book about how one can create art from their own story. Through conversations with other expert writers, Simmins probes into dynamic writing ideas geared toward memoir (but applicable to other forms as well). She explores questions like, “How do you access the details of your earliest memories and make them immediate and dramatic?” “How do you drive your story forward?” “How do you make a stranger care about your life?”
She was kind enough to sit down and answer some questions for us about her wonderful book:
Atlantic Books Today: You’ve written memoirs about falling in love with the love of your life, Silver Donald Cameron (to whom Memoir is dedicated), and about a lifelong love of horses. What is it about memoir that attracts you as a writer?
Marjorie Simmins: I began my writing life with letters. Then I added journals. Next, I began writing essays, or non-fiction stories. And finally, I became a journalist. So yes, it was a natural progression to wonder if I could “write long,” as I used to term it, and create a book-length memoir. To my delight, I discovered that I could write about what I always had always written about – the complexities and joys of family; romantic relationships; animals (horses and dogs in particular); the artist’s life; our interconnected working and cultural lives; our homes of the heart; our allegiances and struggles; or whatever else took my fancy.
Not only that, I could, if I wished, use the genres I had always used, and blend them into a longer, more complex narrative. Memoir presented me with a wonderful opportunity to learn more about writing.
ABT: Can you talk about the transition from writing memoir to writing ABOUT memoir, and moving from the doing to the guiding—was this new territory difficult for you or did it flow naturally from your previous experiences?
MS: I have been teaching memoir and non-fiction writing for about 25 years. I’ve taught every age group, and across the country. I got mightily tired of putting together memoir booklets for the lovely people who come to my workshops.
An actual book on memoir would be perfect, I thought. I also wanted a certain sort of book, which I had yet to find. In short, I hoped to make my book on memoir entertaining and inspiring, and of use to both the emerging and established writer. I also wanted the book to appeal to the reader of memoir, to give them an “insider’s view” of the art and craft of memoir. So I offer some history of this lively and renegade genre, lots of fun writing exercises and prompts, along with sharing personal wisdoms from top-notch writers.
ABT: It’s been a very difficult year for everyone, you more so than many. Do you think that the art of creating stories from true life offers a certain therapy or at least catharsis?
MS: People often turn to writing to manage difficult times in their lives, in real time, or to process those times on a deeper level, in retrospect. Many writers find writing about their lives to be therapeutic or cathartic.
Frankly, I’ve always thought this idea was over-stressed, to the point where writing as therapy has become the expected norm, or sole outcome. I think it’s only part of the picture.
Writing can be a joy all on its own; it doesn’t have to heal hearts or redirect the life paths of the benighted, damaged or disillusioned.
Writing can make you laugh; writing can work on our areas of ignorance or prejudice; writing can be a rigorous intellectual pursuit. Writing can even put our spiritual house in order – or it can simply provide diversion on a winter day.
For those of us who write every day and mostly all day, writing is how we live in the world, and we are grateful for its many gifts.
ABT: This book features some great conversations with well-known writers like Linden MacIntyre, Donna Morrissey, Lawrence Hill and Edmund Metatawabin, among others. Can you give us a taste of the insight they offer about memoir writing?
MS: I can’t stress enough the generosity of the writers I interviewed. I had this wish list of a lucky seven – Linden MacIntyre, Donna Morrissey, Lawrence Hill, Claire Mowat, Edmund Metatawabin, Diane Schoemperlen and Plum Johnson – and never dreamed they’d all agreed to be a part of the book. To a person, they are humorous, honest, accessible, insightful and giving. These are multi-talented, accomplished writers who have looked at memoir from every angle you can imagine – and are kind enough to share their stumbles and their successes.
ABT: What do you hope readers will gain from reading this book?
MS: I hope readers will be newly excited to read more memoirs. I hope writers will be empowered to write their own life stories. I hope they say to themselves, I know exactly how to do this now – and my story will be everything I want it to be.