First-time author Plum Johnson has just been awarded the 2015 RBC Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction for her memoir They Left Us Everything. I was totally fascinated by her reflections to the Globe and Mail and the nature of memoir.
Great memoir, like all great storytelling, requires a certain amount of vulnerability. It’s very tempting to edit out things that we feel awkward about. Johnson’s advice to “welcome the problem” of memoir-writing encourages us to step into the that difficult space. Memoir invites us to relive our lives as characters in a story; when those characters meet challenges and obstacles, their personal strengths and values are thrown into sharp relief. Memoir taps into a world of common experience and understanding. Many people have stood where you’ve stood – but your response is what makes you and your story unique. It’s what makes your readers empathetic.
I love to remind myself that ‘smooth seas do not make skilful sailors’. There is a strange confidence that comes in honesty and admitting failure. Johnson records the life of her parents but also that of herself; she admits that her relationship with her mother was difficult at the end of her mother’s life. Don’t discount the power of your own vulnerability. Oddly, the ability to fail can be an amazing asset.