University News

Sabar ’93 teaches the art of memoir writing

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011

Author and journalist Ariel Sabar ’93 spoke last night on “wrestling with meaning” in “Telling Personal Stories: Memoir as More Than Self Journalism,” a lecture hosted by the English Department at Brown-RISD  Hillel.

Tracy Breton, visiting professor of English and a former coworker of Sabar’s at the Providence Journal, introduced the author. Sabar worked as a journalist for the ProJo, The Baltimore Sun and The Christian Science Monitor. He has written two books, “My Father’s Paradise” and “Heart of the City” and is a professor of creative writing at George Washington University. “My Father’s Paradise” was his first book and memoir, tracing his family’s history back generations from their origins as Kurdish Jews in Iraq to the current generation living in Los Angeles.

“I’ve never been on this side of the podium at Brown,” said Sabar, who was a double concentrator in public policy and modern culture and media at Brown. He also played in the band MuthaFridge, who performed once at Spring Weekend.

Sabar opened by telling the story of how he came to write a memoir, then used this tale as an example — he asked the audience how the story he had just told was different from a journalistic article or an autobiography. The difference between these strictly factual accounts and memoir, he explained, is doubt. “A memoir is not an account of a writer’s past,” Sabar said. “We’re trying to make sense of the past in the present.”

A memoir writer must look through the past, then step back and reflect, Sabar said. “What do you see now that you didn’t see then?” he asked.

The key to writing a great memoir, Sabar said, is to “wrestle on the page with the meaning of your past.”

Sabar said that in his experience as a creative writing teacher, most students hold back information about themselves out of embarrassment.

He said writers should think about their narrative voice as another person to avoid this in a memoir.

But the memoir author must be discerning with an “unsparing critique of your own life,” he said, adding that memoir writers must have the right balance of interest and attachment.

“Memoir is not journalism,” Sabar said. The memoir writer may bend or elaborate on the facts, but “you do have a contract with your readers,” Sabar said.

For his story, Sabar interviewed over 100 people, traveled twice to the Middle East and listened to many oral histories. “I wanted to get the essentials right and infer the rest,” he said. He compared his experience as changing a low definition black and white picture into a high definition color photograph.

“Memoir transcends its writers’ stories.” It was the “lens by which I come to see my own,” Sabar said. “If you didn’t discover something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.”

Audience members ranged from freshmen to older fans of the author, including some of his former coworkers from the ProJo.

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