“Between every line of a memoir is a pounding heart,” said Marjorie Simmins. In her presentation at the EAC conference in Halifax, Simmins, an award-winning writer who makes her living as a journalist, editor, and instructor, shared some of her wisdom about how an editor can make the most out of the sometimes intimate, sometimes delicate, and often rewarding relationship with a memoirist.
“Memoir is impossible to define,” said Simmins. “It’s a bit like a pool of mercury.” Memoirs can be poetry; they can be prose; they can be hybrid of genres. They can be illustrated; they can be literary. They can be about a regular person, a celebrity, or even a family. “Memoir,” Simmins explained, “is a chapter in someone’s life,” in contrast to an autobiography, which is a look at the whole life. “Memoir is supposed to be a piece of time, and it often relates to a particular event.”
Simmins brought along a selection of her favourite memoirs, from Linden MacIntyre’s Causeway to Laura Beatrice Berton’s I Married the Klondike to Joanna Claire Wong’s Wong Family Feast, to show us the vast range that memoirs can cover. Common to all good memoirs, however, is an affecting story, said Simmins, and it takes a skilled writer to achieve just the right balance of sentiment.
Editors can make a meaningful difference in the life of a memoirist, Simmins explained, but not every memoirist–editor pair will work. Luck, and chemistry, also factor into the relationship. “Trust your first impressions,” she advised, when considering whether to take on a project, and define the limits of the relationship through clear communication. “I try to avoid the phone,” she told us, “because people don’t think it takes you any time.” When she agrees to work on a memoir, Simmins first evaluates the manuscript, offering the author a candid overview of her response to the writing and detailing the sections that work well and those that don’t. Candour doesn’t mean insensitivity, of course, especially since memoirists often find it hard to separate themselves from the text and may take umbrage at what they perceive as criticism. After her evaluation, she performs careful line and copy editing to polish the text.
She’ll do her best to fact check, confirming names, dates, and historical references. Some manuscripts require a lot of fact checking, said Simmins, and you’ll generally know how intensive it will be from the first page. Some facts simply can’t be checked, however, and although truth and accuracy are important, so is imagination, Simmins emphasized: “No one can truly remember being three years old,” and even real people, when they are characters in a memoir, still need to be engaging and believable.
Making sure someone gets published, she said, is not her job. Having a work published may not even be a priority for some memoirists, who might write simply to unburden their souls. Memoirs are “truly written in heart’s blood,” said Simmins, and a memoirist might produce only one work in a lifetime, and so it’s particularly important for an editor to be diplomatic and open minded. She warned us that, especially for editors who work as writers, the work lines can get blurred. Occasionally she’ll catch herself thinking, “Oh, I can fix this!” but before she does, she has to remind herself to pull back and instead offer the author guidance and suggestions on what could improve the text.
Memoirists can take things very personally, and Simmins suggested that editors “learn to fend off bullies. They’re out there. Some people just want to criticize everything you do. But you know when you’ve done a good job, and you can beg to differ in a polite way.” She advocated keeping a professional distance from the work. If you get too invested, “you’ll be eaten alive.”
Not every editor is suited to working with memoirists. Some editors, for example, prefer not to work with people and might be better off quietly editing government documents. For Simmins, however, editing memoirs is enormously rewarding, as she knows that her contribution can bring a stranger “great psychic happiness.” She closed her talk with some terrific perspective, courtesy of Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
Marjorie Simmins’s own memoir, Coastal Lives, about her embracing the identify of Maritimer after moving to Nova Scotia from the West Coast, will be published by Pottersfield Press in 2014.