All six of his Kindle Singles became bestsellers. Who could offer better insight into the challenges of perspectives and truth in memoir than author Mishka Shubaly?
Mishka Shubaly is an author, musician, public speaker. He is also an addict and alcoholic in recovery. This has made for a life filled with stories that are a goldmine for a memoirist. Indeed, in addition to his bestselling Kindle Singles, he’s also published a full-length memoir, I Swear I’ll Make It Up to You, about what led him down the dark path and how he found his way back to the light.
We spoke with Mishka Shubaly on The Empowered Author Podcast. This is a summary of our conversation, and you can listen and subscribe to the podcast here:
An MFA in Fiction & Writing Exclusively Nonfiction
With an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, it’s ironic that Mishka Shubaly’s books are nonfiction. He remembers that when he decided to enrol for his MFA, he didn’t really know what nonfiction, autofiction, and memoir were. So, let’s clarify the difference between these genres first:
- Nonfiction is an umbrella term for several genres of writing based on fact. It can be in the form of a narrative but doesn’t necessarily have to be. The main characteristic of nonfiction is that nothing about it is made up: everything is true. Examples of nonfiction books are textbooks, self-help books, biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs.
- Memoir is similar to autobiography in the sense that the author writes about themselves. However, where autobiography tells the author’s entire life story, memoir focuses on only part of, or a specific theme within, the author’s life.
- Autofiction blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction. It is fictionalized autobiography: the author is writing about themselves and their life but may make up characters or events rather than simply sticking to the truth.
When Mishka finally started pursuing a career in writing, he chose nonfiction. As he says, “The world in front of us is endlessly fascinating. So much so that, why would I make stuff up?”
There’s also the fact that often truth is stranger than fiction. “My mother comes from a family of seventeen children. Seventeen! Now, if I was to incorporate that into fiction, I’d have to tone it down because it isn’t believable. But, it’s fact,” Mishka said.
Memoirists and the Burden of Truth
Nonfiction writers such as memoirists owe a huge burden to the truth, just like a journalist does. This means that you don’t get to curate your experience to make yourself look better or the other characters in your story look worse. Nor is it cool to lie by omission.
This leads to a bit of a challenge for memoirists and other narrative nonfiction writers: as with fiction, it’s all about the story. Your job as an author is to move the story forward. Which details are important enough to leave in? Which ones you can leave out, without straying from the truth such that it changes the narrative or the reader’s perception?
Your story will inevitably include other characters that are real people that you have real relationships with. The challenge is to be honest, to include important details without omitting key ones because you’re afraid of making the other person look bad. You may find that certain details can actually redeem the character in the reader’s eyes. However, you also need to be respectful of the wishes of the person you’re writing about: if they don’t want you to include the most intimate details about their life in your memoir, even if it is a key pillar of your story, you need to find another way to present the notions.
Evolving Self, Evolving Perspective
Perspectives and truth in memoir aren’t black and white. What you think and feel and believe today is likely not what you thought and felt and believed at the time you’re writing about. And that’s another challenge. How do you write from the perspective of the person you were at the time the events were playing out? You don’t want to constantly remind your reader that you’re a different person now and may have a different perspective on things. However, you do want your reader to know that you are a different person now. After all, why would they want to read about your story if there isn’t some sort of conclusion? Mishka’s advice is to trust your reader to understand that you’re not the same person now as you were then. If you spell out everything to your reader, it will be like giving them a list of ingredients for a cake instead of giving them the fully-baked version and letting them savour the flavours.
Write from the Scar and Not the Wound
Writing memoir – especially if it focuses on some kind of trauma – can be terrifying and stressful but also incredibly healing. You’ll be digging into details about your life that will bring back bad memories and feelings. And then you’ll be sorting through these memories and feelings. Here you need to remember to write from the scar and not the wound. If the feelings are still too raw, it might serve you better to write your story in a journal for nobody else to see. You can always come back to those journals later on and use them as source material for your memoir. Once you have travelled far enough along the road to healing to write your memoir, you’ll be able to look more objectively at the writing itself. As a memoirist, you aren’t really writing for yourself, after all, you’re writing for your reader first and foremost.
We all have stories to tell about our lives. Some of us even manage to tell some of those stories in such a way that others will enjoy, be touched by them, and maybe even learn from them.
Find and follow Mishka Shubaly on Twitter (@MishkaShubaly) and Facebook, or visit his website where you’re encouraged to buy some of his merch (help support the artist!).