She was born and raised in a cult in mainstream America and proclaimed “The Chosen One” before being permanently ousted from the group by the age of 25. Sounds like a great premise for a bestselling novel, right? But for Writers’ Program instructor Jayanti Tamm, this fascinating story is anything but fictional. As a Pushcart Prize-nominated memoirist and fiction writer, Jayanti shares her fascinating experience in her book, Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult. What compelled her to write her story? And how does one embark on the challenge of writing a memoir? Here’s what Jayanti has to say.

Writers’ Program: You share a glimpse of your life in Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult. How did you know you had every mark of a great story and what compelled you to share your past with the world?

Jayanti Tamm: For me, I had come to a point in my life where I had enough distance from the events and was able to gain a perspective about my experiences. With the help of therapy, I felt that I was on solid footing in my new life, and, from there, I felt that if I was able to write my story, I would gain a deeper understanding about the events that had shaped me. Writing, of course, is a process of discovery, and so it seemed logical that the next step would be to write my story. My hope was that by doing so, not only would I be able to help myself, but I might be able to offer some help to others who had similar experiences.

WP’: You have an impressive background in creative writing, specializing in fiction and playwriting. How did you make the transition from fiction and playwriting to memoir writing?

JT: It’s all storytelling. With memoir, the plot comes fully formed. All other genres, it’s up to you to do the work.

WP’: For students who are new to memoir writing, what words of advice do you have for them?

JT: The most important piece of advice is that there is a wrong time and a right time to embark on a memoir. The wrong time is you’re too close to the event or experience to have the necessary perspective to write about it. A memoir written too soon often is a revenge piece penned with anger, bitterness, and self-pity. No one wants to read that memoir. The right time to craft a memoir is when the student has the required distance with which to offer a critical level of insight, perspective, and nuance. When is that time? There is no magic formula. Only the writer will know when he or she is ready to share the story with all its important shadings and complications.

WP’: What is the biggest misconception that students have about writing memoirs?

JT: The biggest misconception is that if one has a unique experience, then one has a great memoir. That is not true. Even the most amazing life story will sink if it is not told by a proficient storyteller. Thus, a great memoir should read just the same as a great novel. It needs to be a page-turner replete with rich characters, setting, action, and scenes.

WP’: What’s your secret for crafting, developing, and structuring a life story into memoir?

JT: The key to a compelling memoir is to avoid editorializing. Avoid telling the reader that what happened was crazy, bad, or dangerous. Instead, write the scene truthfully using great detail and specificity so that the reader can see and understand for herself that the event was crazy, bad, or dangerous. Vividly recall the experience and then trust that the reader will perceive the joys or sorrows. Don’t tell the reader how to think and how to feel about your story. When given a vivid re-creation, the reader will come to his or her own conclusion.

Have an amazing life story to tell? Jayanti will be teaching Introduction to Writing the Memoir (Online), beginning January 15. Click here to enroll or call Registration at 310-825-9971.

Phoebe Lim is the Program Assistant for Creative Writing (Online) and Events. 

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