novoir

A Conversation with Tristine Rainer

This month I had the opportunity to interview someone I've long admired. Tristine Rainer is a trailblazer and well-known expert in the field of memoir, having written two classic books on the subject: The New Diary and Your Life as Story —both of which have provided enormous inspiration to me as well as a wealth of practical tools on the craft of writing memoir. I am forever grateful to Tristine for pouring all of her heart and knowledge into these master works. For anyone serious about the art of journaling and memoir, put them on your reading list!

Tristine and I enjoyed an extensive conversation on everything from the ethics of being a memoir coach and her approach to working with writers, to the unique structure and process behind writing her novoir Apprenticed to Venus, which is about her relationship with mentor Anaïs Nin and is being released in paperback this summer!


Tristine Rainer is a recognized expert on diary and memoir writing and the author of two renowned classics on autobiographic writing continuously in print.

Her mentor Anaïs Nin wrote the preface to Tristine’s first book The New Diary, calling it revolutionary. Published the year of Nin’s death, 1977, The New Diary popularized contemporary journal writing and created its lexicon. According to Amazon, after hundreds of offshoot books on journaling, thirty-eight years later it is still the bestselling book on journal writing.

In the 1970’s Rainer taught literature and writing in the English departments at UCLA and Indiana University, co-founded the Women’s Studies Program at UCLA, and created that university’s first Women’s Lit courses.

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In 1997 she published Your Life as Story: Discovering the New Autobiography and Writing Memoir as Literature (Tarcher/Penguin-Random.) The book anticipated the rise of contemporary memoir writing, and Tristine returned to lecturing and university teaching, at University of Hawaii and for eleven years as a faculty member in the Masters of Professional Writing Program at USC. Privately, Tristine has coached many authors to publication.

As founder and Director of the Center for Autobiographic Studies, a nonprofit since 1997, Rainer promotes the creation and preservation of autobiographic works, teaches, lectures and consults.

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In her novoir Apprenticed to Venus, eighteen-year-old Tristine Rainer was sent on an errand to Anaïs Nin’s West Village apartment in 1962. The chance meeting would change the course of her life and begin her years as Anaïs’s accomplice, keeping her mentor’s confidences—including that of her bigamy—even after Anaïs Nin’s death and the passing of her husbands, until now.

She “blends memoir and imagination in this engaging examination of her relationship with author Anaïs Nin,” an intimate look at both the blessings and risks of the female mentor-protégé relationship and “a fascinating personal journey” (Publishers Weekly).

The paperback will be released July 16th!

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Karin Gutman: How did you become a memoir coach?

Tristine Rainer: I think I invented the job. The first time I used the term "memoir coach," was in Your Life as Story and I added, "Say what?" because it was such a novel idea then. Certainly, there were editors who had worked with, usually, well-known people in publishing memoirs. But the whole field was being increasingly democratized. And we began to see the beginning of people who simply had a good story, or something important to say, who didn't have any name, begin to get published and to write literary memoirs.

The first time I worked as a memoir coach, I had been teaching autobiographic writing—memoir writing—at UCLA Extension. I think it was the first time they ever had a class on it.

Karin: What year was that?

Tristine: Probably 1988. There was a woman who was a well-known Brentwood psychic in the class, and she was writing about her life and how she became a psychic. She came up to me, and said, “Would you work with me individually on this?” And I said, “Well, I don't know. I've never done that. And I wouldn't know what to charge you.” So she said, “Well, how about $100 an hour?” I said, “Okay, let's try it.” That was the first time I did it, and she had sensitive material.

Karin: We’ve talked about the importance of ethics in being a memoir coach. How did that evolve for you?

Tristine: I don't think I was aware then. I think at that time, it was instinctual for me that if people were confiding in me, and they were within the protection of just writing, at that point, for themselves, that I would have to create some standards for myself. But I don't think they were conscious at the time. I think that I am a person who keeps confidences. It's just my nature.

Karin: We know that from your memoir, Apprenticed to Venus. 

Tristine: Yeah, I kept Anaïs Nin's confidences for more than 30 years before writing about that material. It has always been true that people feel comfortable confiding in me. And I've always taken it as, you know, somebody says, “This is between us,” and I say, “Yes,” I consider that a contract.

But I actually made a mistake once. And that's when I became conscious that I needed, at least for me, to formalize my ideas about what the ethics and procedures of being a memoir coach should be. I had a newsletter for the Center for Autobiographic Studies. This was way back; I mean, we didn't have the internet for sending out newsletters. We actually folded and sent them out with stamps. 

Karin: That's awesome. 

Tristine: People loved getting them that way. It was somehow very intimate. So each time, I would write on a theme related to autobiographic writing, and for one, the theme was about ethnic identity. I used an example of a woman who had consulted with me. I didn't think that I'd revealed anything intimate, but I had revealed that this was a theme of her work. And she came back to me, and she said, “I trusted you. You've now given away my theme.” And I said, “Oh gosh.” I immediately realized, oh, I really had done something wrong. And I refunded her money. And I then, at that point said, “Okay, I speak about autobiographic writing, and I like to include examples, but I'm going to have to have permission anytime I do that.”

So in terms of confidentiality, I thought that the best thing to adopt is the same standards and ethics that psychotherapists adopt. Because the work is so very similar, though, I think, for me, far easier. I would not want the responsibility for somebody's mental health without having the tools of writing to direct them to. That's just me. Because I think that it is a, you know, “Don't give me a fish. Teach me how to fish.” Somebody then can use those tools and take them forward with their own writing.

For each of us our story is precious to them, and there's an energy in keeping it within the creative cauldron when you're working on it. I'm of the belief that neither they nor I should talk about it much. But they're free to talk about it as much as they want, and some of them do.  

I think the best example was Elyn Saks, who wrote The Center Cannot Hold. I was teaching memoir writing at USC then and she was on the faculty. She came to me and said, “Would you work with me privately? I have a memoir. But I don't know whether I want to write it.”

So she told me her secret, which I now can tell because she's published it herself, and also gave me permission to talk about having been her coach, which not everybody does. Not everybody wants anybody to know that they even were coached. In her case, she was a highly functioning law professor, psychoanalyst herself, and has schizophrenia. And she felt the need to write the book because it really was not known that somebody who has schizophrenia could be very high functioning. She, even though she had tenure, was terribly afraid of how the knowledge that she had schizophrenia would affect her colleagues, her job, and her life, and she wasn't ready to come out with it.

So we worked provisionally, that she might never publish it, share it at all. She was going to see what it would look like if she wrote it. We went through a draft and she decided at the end of that draft that she didn't want to do anything with it. So she went her way, and years went by. Eventually she got to a point that she had an agent, and she decided it was time. And really, I was so delighted. The book that we did is pretty different; it's gone through evolutions since that first draft we did together. I, all that time, felt this was such an important book, but that it wasn't for me to make that decision to publish or not.

When she did, it was so liberating for her. She ended up getting the MacArthur Genius Award as a result of publishing the book. It was on The New York Times Bestseller List and turned out to be a wonderful thing for her life. She's helping so many people now, people who have schizophrenic children will write to her, and she always writes back. It fulfilled herself and her purpose in life.

Karin: Do you think it’s more helpful to write for yourself or with an audience in mind?

Tristine: I feel that anticipating audience in a first draft can create blocks, writing blocks. And so I suggest, even if somebody has to write on every page, “This is for my eyes only.” They don’t have to show me everything they write. This goes back to the question of privacy, which has been flipped around on the internet, where people write the most intimate things, share the most intimate things online, and they don't care about it. But I feel that for reaching the myth, which is what I'm going for, the healing myth inside each story, that there has to be a safe place for that. 

Karin: What do you mean by myth? 

Tristine: I guess I mean the story, and the story in its simplest terms, that leads to a realization. That realization is either for oneself, to change oneself, or to expand oneself to grow in new ways, and to be a different person, or it's to be shared and given to the community. So in Elyn Saks's case, it was to share and be given to the community, and I do think that that's very appropriate at the level of a second or third draft.

Karin: How do you coach people about writing sensitive, often deeply painful, material?

Tristine: Emotional flooding?

Karin: Yes, when you’re concerned someone may head down a rabbit hole. I believe you use a tool called ‘containment’. Can you talk about that?

Tristine: It's related to what Kathleen Adams has done with journal writing, with working with people who may have psychological problems, where the idea of just free and unlimited journal writing is not a good idea for them. She has them set a timer and only write for 10 minutes. So I suggest they deal with it in the same way. Time it. Maybe do it in the morning, write for 25 minutes. And then it's important to stop writing.

My daughter and I are working on a memoir now that's going to have a lot of dark and difficult material in it …

Karin: That’s so exciting.

It really is exciting. I mean, she is just such a wonderful writer. It's such a gift to me. We haven't gotten to the really tough stuff yet, but we've already talked about containment. And the very way we're doing it has containment built into it because it's just one scene at a time. We also talked about looking for the light, the moments of beauty, of love, even in the darkest times.

I watched the film Beautiful Boy. I had read the memoir and I think that the memoir worked for me because the author's intelligence as a journalist, and his personality, kept me safe. But the movie really did not. It was so hard to watch. It's an important movie about an important subject, and brave, but just not enough light in it to allow the audience to stay. And that's hard when you're dealing with a subject like addiction, which doesn't have a lot of light in it. 

So my daughter has a good way of writing that may help her. And by the way, in terms of confidentiality, she's given me permission to say anything. She is so brave. She really wants her life to have purpose, and she is doing so well. But she does not stay in the present moment. She writes very free association style and she will move through time so she can bring in almost anything she wants. I mean, you can move through time very easily in memoir writing if you have the right voice. And therefore, even if it was an extremely dark time, you can bring some light to the reader while they're going through it.

Do you mean by invoking other moments from her life in the darkness?

Well, it can be from another time, but it can also be from that time itself. I mean, even in the darkest times of her addiction and her homelessness, there were moments when she and I got together, and our love was still there. The desire to connect with love was still there, and it's a thread. In my case, we are writing a spiritual memoir, so we're looking… You know, God isn't absent even in those times.

The way I see it… if someone is writing about a difficult time or memory, they are writing about it from the perspective of having arrived here. So there must be a light force in them, even in darkest hour, that got them through.

Yes, completely. If there isn't that, then people are dehumanized. But nevertheless, they need the right circumstances to heal and finally be able to get that.

What is your approach when working with people, particularly someone who knows she has a story to tell, but is unclear how to tell it?

I work differently with everybody. But I do like to use Your Life as Story. I like them to have the book and be able to direct them to certain exercises to do, or chapters to read, so that I don't have to repeat all that material, and say, “Okay, this would be a good time for you to read the chapter on writing dialogue because you need some dialogue in here.” I like them to do the story structure exercises and refer back to it.

Frequently, it seems that they'll have already written several chapters but they got stuck because they don't know where they're going. So I like to read what they have before we start working together. And maybe correct in those chapters, where they haven't found the voice yet, to lead them to find the voice. I find that once they have a structure and the voice, and they can identify it, they then can run through a whole first draft and I don't need to look again until the first draft is finished. 

I kind of tell them when they've gotten enough from me. Once their momentum is going, I like to let them loose and say, “Don't contact me until you have a problem.” Because, boy, once that motor gets going, I am amazed how quickly they can write.

Somehow structure is the thing that eludes people the most. Do you find that?

Oh, yeah. And for some reason, my gift is to tell them their story. I will tell it back to them. “Here's what I hear, I think your story is…” I think that comes from all the years that I worked in television movies, and pitching stories. I mean, I was dealing with five stories a week that I would go and pitch. I was constantly taking material, true material, and trying to figure out how to shape it into an entertaining story, and looking, “Is there a genre that this fits?” In working with clients I get excited about the story, then they pick up my excitement and then they take it and run in ways that I never could have imagined. 

Do you talk in structural terms, using the three-act structure?

Yes, and most of all, it seems to be giving them an ending; for them to understand what a crisis, a climax, and the realization is. Understanding that they think they know what it is, but they don't. Really understanding what the climax of their story is, which doesn't always happen exactly the way it needs to be expressed in a story. So I think I add my imagination as a storyteller for them and then we find a way to make it real.

I carry their story with me once I get their material. I carry it with me when I'm taking a shower, when I'm going for a walk. It's working its way through my imagination. And so by the time I talk to them and tell it to them, I've got an excitement about the story that they pick up. That seems to be what works. People get themselves so tangled up in their story, because they don’t realize what they can leave out. We figure out, "This is the story. All this other stuff doesn't need to be in it. That character doesn't need to be in there, who's still alive, who's going to give you trouble."

The structure of your memoir, Apprenticed to Venus, is so unique and eye-opening—the two voices, weaving your story with Anaïs Nin’s.

Oh, it was so hard. For me, emotion comes last. It’s like an Asperger's thing almost. I see structure and I wanted to do something very difficult in the structure of my book. I had to play more fast and loose with memoir, in terms of chronology and freedom to imagine where something could be placed, more than really anything I've ever worked on with somebody else.

But I had said for myself, “I want to see how the myth, the story inside one person's life, can change the trajectory of another person's life,” and that’s what Anaïs and I did for each other. I wanted to tell her story not as biography, but as it influenced my story. And so, to interweave them, boy, I just had to leave so much out, and jump through time, and pick out those moments where one of her turning points would influence me, even if it influenced me in a way where it was a misinformation that influenced me, or carefully revealed information that would make me go in the wrong direction.

Your memoir really pushes the genre forward. Do you feel like that’s happening elsewhere, in terms of the evolution of memoir?

Well, it's happening in France. It's happening as autofiction. That's their term for it. It's the most popular genre in France. They're frequently ahead of us, in terms of experimentation, and having a readership for experimentation.

Do you think this new territory makes memoir more interesting? Or do you think traditional memoir, being as true as you can be to your story, is just as valuable?

Well, with Anaïs, people have written straight stories about knowing her. People have written biographies about her that were carefully researched. So if I was going to write about Anaïs, everything has been kind of used up. So I wrote the book for myself, to see what I could do with this genre, which was taking it as far as possible, and to have fun with it for myself, and for the reader. And now I'm working on a book that's going to be strictly non-fiction. I'm not going to make up anything. I don't need to.

Sometimes what is a great idea, or inspired by a true story, doesn't fulfill what you need, in terms of story structure. But if you go deep enough, I often find that it does. Certainly, I'm not encouraging my writers to fictionalize. I'm encouraging them to look within the emotional story, what could be brought out in terms of making a true story more powerful. Sometimes those may be things in one's imagination. One's imagination is true too. “I dreamt that this would happen.” “I wanted this to happen.” Those are real. And they allow you a great freedom without lying to the reader.

The perfect example is Mary Karr's Liar's Club. She's in the car with her mother and she writes “I didn’t think this particularly beautiful or noteworthy at the time, but only so so now. The sunset we drove into that day was luminous, glowing; we weren’t.

“Though we should have glowed, for what Mother told absolved us both…” You forget that she's saying it should have happened that way because you get the emotional relief of it happening that way. What's important is the emotional release for the writer and the reader. But that is the power of fiction. The power of fiction is, “What if?” And I don't see any reason why a memoir writer can't use, “What if?” as long as the reader knows that's what they're doing.

Speaking of Mary Karr… In her book The Art of Memoir, she shares a quote by Philip Gourevitch who says that his works of memoir are just as great as his works of fiction. Still, the publishing world seems to hold fiction in higher regard. Do you think memoir has gained more respect in recent years?

I think that's it gotten better in quality because it has incorporated the techniques of fiction—scenes, dialogue, story structure, thematic unity, character development, character arc. That's what the new autobiography is, and that's what interests me.

One of my favorite writers is Pat Conroy, who was writing autobiographic novels long before there was such a thing as autofiction, or what I call novoir. He admitted that he was writing autobiographical novels. He was so committed to language and craft that, for me, it's tremendous that it's coming out of this man's experience who experienced of all macho sides and damage of being a man, and that he has the ability to write emotionally about it, and artistically, and with the craft that really makes it into a satisfying story with multiple characters.

And what about the evolution of publishing? Do you recommend following a traditional publishing path or self-publishing?

Most people that I work with, and that I like to work with, have a sense that this story has been given to them, and they have a life purpose in sharing it, realizing it, for themselves, and for others even if that might be a limited audience of family or self-published. I probably have a lot more people who are writing for publication, and I like to recommend them to a commercial publisher. Because I just think, for a writer, that getting somebody else to do all the things that are involved with publishing a book, it's just really nice to have somebody else do that for you. Self-publishing, well you just have a huge learning curve, but I greatly admire those who self-publish.

What advice would you give to someone who knows they have a personal story to tell, but might not be sure where to begin?

Well, I still think I have the best book on memoir writing, in terms of giving concrete advice on craft and covering the subject. So I'd tell them to get Your Life as Story. I think it untangles a lot of knots for people and gives them a roadmap and encouragement.

In terms of Apprenticed to Venus, which I hope people will buy in softcover, now that it's more affordable, I would say read it in terms of the freedom of how far you can go in experimentation. It's got two different voices in it, and it’s sort of funny. When I ask people, “You want me to tell you what I made up? Where I changed things?” People will say, “No, don't tell me.” They want to keep for themselves the story as I told it.

To learn more about Tristine Rainer, visit her website.

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