hen I sat down to write this piece, I wasn’t sure where to begin. There is so much to say; how could I possibly pare it all down into a single article? What should I include? What should I leave out? What message should I leave with the reader at the end? It’s no coincidence that those are the same concerns that arise when an author considers writing a memoir.
There are a couple misconceptions that confuse the process even more. What exactly is a memoir? Isn’t it the same thing as an autobiography? The short answer: no, it’s not.
In an autobiography, a writer takes a long, complete look at her life and records the events and experiences from birth through adulthood. But a memoir is not all encompassing; in the simplest terms, a memoir is a compelling snapshot of a time, place, person, experience, or event in a writer’s life. That story, once fully-explored, illustrates a central theme or reveals a universal truth.
With the continuing explosion of reality television, there is a good argument for the belief that audiences want to know about the emotions, experiences, and reactions of real people. This is what memoir delivers.
Naysayers may point their fingers at the me-me-me of memoir and brush it off as an egomaniacal romp into reverie and self-reflection. And some of the memoirs out there are exactly that. Just as some fiction is a forum for an author’s pseudoliterary pontification. Thankfully, that is not the case with all memoirs and novels. Good stories exist in both genres. Strive to be one of the good ones.
The “Who Cares” Question
"Who cares" is the most basic question every writer should ask before even writing a book—it's not relegated only to memoirs. It's about knowing your audience and having elements in your story that are universal.
The reader of a how-to guide, a cookbook, or a computer manual, is in search of useful information. The reader who chooses a novel or memoir wants to be entertained. Offer an interesting premise and deliver an entertaining story and you will have solved the “who cares” question.
“It’s about knowing your audience and having elements in your story that are universal.”
Begin at the Beginning
If you want to write a memoir and you don’t know where to start, begin by taking a look at your life. Ask yourself these basic questions to help find the direction of your story. Pull out a piece of paper (or open a blank document) and answer these questions.
- How did I get to where I am now?
- What experiences in my life have shaped my character?
- What do I believe from the core of my being? And why?
- If I could tell only one story about my life, what would it be?
The questions are designed to be broad enough to help you identify a throughline that can be used as the first step to discovering if you have a story you truly want to tell.
The next step is to go on a scavenger hunt for old photos, diaries, or the memory box full of trinkets, letters, and souvenirs from your past that you have tucked in a corner of the garage. Sort through these treasures, keeping a notebook and pen handy to jot down the memories and story ideas as they come to you.
Crafting a memoir doesn’t necessarily require you to dive into your past. You can begin your story with an incident that is still warm and recent. Mine the details of your lifestyle, career, culture, family life, or anything unique to your experience that can be used as the base for your memoir.
Did you grow up on a ranch in a rural area or a tiny apartment in a big city? Are you a police officer or the wife of one? Have you escaped from an abusive relationship? Are you languishing in an unfulfilled life? Is your family hug-me sweater dysfunctional or Norman Rockwell perfect? No matter what your situation is, past or present—there is something in your life that is story worthy.
Readers will be drawn to your story for different reasons: some may identify with you and your experiences; some will want to live vicariously through your story to see a way of life, culture, or career they’ve never experienced; some, like rubber-neckers at an accident, will want to see what happened in your train wreck of a life.
“No matter what your situation is, past or present—there is something in your life that is story worthy.”
Sketching Your Main Character
In a quest to create multidimensional characters, many writers need not look any further than their own bathroom mirror. We are all complex creatures with unfathomable depths of emotion, significant wants, needs, and insecurities. Choosing a single one of them and any of the accompanying experiences can be the basis for an entire book.
Discover the beauty in your own uniqueness of thought and mood and use it to build the foundation character for your memoir. There are books dedicated to creating unforgettable and believable characters, but why piece together Frankenstein’s monster from a list of traits and behaviors when you are already whole and functioning in the plot of your life?
Your authentic self and the organic nature of your choices as you navigate through your life are more real and honest than any manufactured fiction.
A fiction writer could create a character that is a mid-thirty-something, college educated, single mother who is recovering from a break-up and decides to work as an exotic dancer to support and homeschool her pre-teen son, while pursuing a writing career, and searching for Prince Charming. It has romantic “momedy” written all over it. However, it’s not fiction. It’s the premise of my memoir, The Break-Up Diet.
I’ve turned my unusual perspective and situation into a book that questions several different social conventions and concepts like sacrificing for your dreams, choosing to remove a child from the system, pursuing happily-ever-after and the idealism of a soul mate, and balancing motherhood and the personal needs of a woman.
There are amazing fiction writers out there, but I don’t believe there is a fiction writer in the world who could authentically create the feelings, thoughts, and situations that occurred at that time in my life.
As a budding memoirist, you need to find that story of your own—the one only you can tell.
“Discover the beauty in your own uniqueness...”
Write What You Know
In the crafting of memoir, the old adage “write what you know” ceases to be cliché and becomes story gold. No one can write the truth of your experiences in the same way that you can.
A writer friend of mine recently admitted she had become overwhelmed and bogged down in research for her memoir: a story about her life growing up with a mother who had an unusual, and at the time, undiagnosed mental disorder. This writer spent months researching clinical documentation of studies done on patients who had the same disorder as her mother. The problem was not that she needed to learn more about it; she needed to realize that no psychiatrist in the world could write the story she had to tell.
Trust that you know your world. No one can write with the same emotion and detail about your experience.
It’s All in the Details
That which is specific is the most universal. ~ Jean Luc Godard, French filmmaker.
Specificity is crucial to memoir and any personal narrative. In fiction, more general descriptions can be used because the reader, just by the very act of picking up a novel, has agreed to allow the author to take her on a fictional journey. When reading a memoir, there are certain expectations that the story will contain recognizable elements to which the reader can relate. As you begin transferring your memories onto the page, choose your words wisely.
If your memoir opens with you and your best friend flopped across your thread-bare Holly Hobby bedspread, singing along to your new Shawn Cassidy record, and then your sister runs into the room, sprays you both with huge squirts of Love’s Baby Soft, and starts a perfume fight... Those are the little details that set the scene, the era, the innocence, and evoke the most emotional resonance from your readers. That was just an example off the top of my head, but it illustrates my point that the image wouldn’t be as crisp if non-specific choices were made.
Naming specific geographic locations, businesses, products, etc. adds to the reader’s recognition of your lifestyle and the world where your story takes place.
That being said, you will need to include the standard brand and trademark usage disclaimer on your copyright page. To avoid potential lawsuits, I would recommend not including any derogatory references to businesses or products. I’m not an attorney, so make sure you consult a legal professional. I’m just going by what momma used to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t name names when you’re talking smack.” Okay, so maybe those weren’t the exact words she used...
You may have heard that it is unwise to “date” your story with pop culture, political, or social references. This may be sound advice for fiction, but memoir thrives through use of the specific. Grounding your story with carefully chosen details gives it richness, depth, and resonance.
“Grounding your story with carefully chosen details gives it richness, depth, and resonance.”
Timeless—Like the Macarena
Did you ever do the Macarena dance in the late ‘90s (or even at a wedding recently)? Silly, yes. Widespread social dance phenomenon, yes. History, absolutely. Memoir is historical documentation by the people, for the people, in order to form a more perfect record of how society thinks, behaves, and lives at this very moment in time. When you write a memoir, you are writing history. History, as experienced by a single human.
Textbooks capture history, citing the names, dates, and places of significant events and the major public, social, political, and religious figures who are “noteworthy.” While all those facts and figures are preserved for posterity, who is writing the story about the people who lived through those historical events? The 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the Holocaust, these events and countless others are pieces of human history. Without the individual stories of people who were there, future generations will be robbed of the humanity beneath the history. Which is more compelling and leaves you with a deeper understanding of history: the chapter about WWII in your old high school textbook, or The Diary of Anne Frank?
Maybe your story is not tied to any event that will ever appear in a textbook (I know mine certainly isn’t); that doesn’t mean it is less valuable. Your life is a microcosm of the world around you. Your daily trials, concerns, and experiences deserve to be recorded to paint an authentic picture of life at this very moment, at this exact place in the world.
“Your life is a microcosm of the world around you.”
Can You Hear Me Now?
There is only one way to make a connection: seek to create emotional resonance with your reader by your fearless expression of your emotions. If you can capture, on the page, the exact scene where you experienced all the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of a single moment of loss, loneliness, joy, love, surprise, fear, or disgust, you will have delivered that same experience to your reader. The goal is to elicit a visceral response—make her laugh aloud, coax tears to flow down her cheeks, cause a churning in her stomach, a tightness in her chest. These are all reactions that you, the writer, can evoke through your words and the world you draw your reader into.
If you can feel the emotions and relive the scene, playing out the images in your mind as you write about it, your reader will see and feel what you have experienced. There is a quote by Robert Frost that makes this point succinctly: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." If you don’t write with emotion and wonder, you can’t expect your collection of words on the page to bring out these feelings in your reader.
Choosing the Theme Song You Want to Sing
Start by humming a few bars of the Rocky theme song. My guess is that you can probably make it far beyond the first several chords. Images of the movie scenes play out in a montage in your mind; you see him punching meat and running up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He embodies every man…um…person, rising to a challenge.
So, what does that have to do with your memoir? Simply, you need to decide who your target audience is and what message you want to leave them with when they reach the end of your book.
It may take some time to figure out your theme if you are still considering what story you want to tell. Don’t try too hard to create a “message.” Hitting your audience over the head with a didactic story went out of fashion with morality plays in the 16th century. However, you should discover the reason you want to tell your story; that will lead you to the theme.
If you find that you have no “point” to your story, it may be best to consider binding some copies for family members as a legacy or as an addition to your family’s genealogy collection. If your intent is to see your memoir in the trade marketplace, you need to have a universal theme to which your readers can relate.
When you sit down to write your memoir, the theme vs. story debate is just as futile as arguing about which comes first—the chicken or the egg. Some writers will have an omnipresent feeling about a central theme in their life and not be sure how to best illustrate it with their experiences, others will have experiences they want to share and may need to discover the theme within the story. It really doesn’t matter what comes first for anyone else; write from where the story originates inside of you.
Look over the list of universal themes that I’ve provided. You may discover a theme that grows from your story or you may remember a story from your life that illustrates one of the themes.
List of Universal Themes [source: inetteacher.com]
Adjusting to a New Life
Appreciation of Nature
Caring for the Environment
Coming of Age
Coping with Loss
Courage and Honor
Customs and Traditions
Dealing with Handicaps
Death and Dying
Effects of War
Good vs. Evil
Living in Today's Society
Morals & Values
Sense of Community
Sense of Self
Separation and Loss
Taking a Stand
Putting It All Together
You’ve chosen your story, you know your main character, and you’ve discovered your theme, now, what about plot and structure? Like fiction, memoir needs a hook, conflict, and an arc. Those story elements may seem too contrived to be used for memoir, but they really aren’t. It just comes down to the choices you make.
The hook is easy. Make a statement that opens your story with a compelling reason for the reader to continue reading. You open a memoir to the first chapter and read the first line: “When I stepped through the doorway into the cool night air and heard the soft click of the door closing behind me, I knew I’d never see my children again.” Would you keep reading? I would. I’d be full of questions. Where is she going? Why is she leaving? Why won’t she see her children again? What happened? Creating a hook is merely finding a compelling place to begin your story. A good screenwriting technique to employ: make sure the action happens on page one. No slow-build with “Once upon a time…” No backstory. Begin at the point of change and make a statement that compels the reader to continue.
Conflict is everywhere; it doesn’t need to be manufactured for your story, it is innate. As a memoirist, you need to be true to the conflict that occurs naturally. No one wants to read a story that is static. There are ups and downs in everyday life, conflicts that arise when you want something you can’t have or someone in your life has goals or plans that directly oppose your goals or plans. The conflict can also be an internal tug o’ war between your desires and your obligations, your rational and emotional sides, your ambition and your insecurity. Don’t deny the conflict exists, no matter what it is and even if it is subtle, it needs to be a part of your story.
The arc can be an element in your memoir just by choosing where to begin and end your story. When you sit down to tell a story, any story, to someone who is listening, you choose where to begin the story, what will be told about the core of the story, and where it will end. Some aspect of storytelling can be found in every culture across the world and has existed for many thousands of years. As a storytelling people from the dawn of time, we have developed a natural rhythm and feel for what makes a good tale. Trust the organic flow of your story and you will discover you need not worry about crafting something that is already there.
“Like fiction, memoir needs a hook, conflict, and an arc.”
The Land of the Disinherited and Friendless
This is the point where the bold are separated from the meek. You’ve gone through the steps to create a story that is richly detailed and universally fulfilling for readers. It’s the truth of your experiences and emotions and you’ve put it on the page for all to see. Now, the question is, will you claim this child as your memoir or hide it behind the skirt of fiction?
There are two main reasons for choosing to present your memoir as a novel. 1. Embarrassment. 2. Embarrassment. All joking aside, you either have the intestinal fortitude to handle being the naked woman in a memoir remake of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” or you don’t. Some people will applaud your candor; others will use it to pass judgment on you. You need to be prepared for both.
Another big consideration is how friends and family portrayed in you memoir will respond to having their life, from your perspective, put on display. Ask Frank Conroy how that can turn out. His family picketed his book signings.
If you decide to change the names of the “characters” who appear in your memoir, if for no other reason than to protect the privacy of the guilty (and I recommend that you do), again, check with an attorney regarding any liabilities.
I suggest making the name change after you finish the story and before you submit it anywhere. Maintaining the true names throughout the writing process will help keep you tied to the truth of your perspective and perception of the people you are portraying. Changing the names before submitting the manuscript will help cover your bases. However, even if you do change the names, though direct association, people who know you and know them will recognize the portraits you’ve painted, just as your cast of characters will recognize themselves.
That being said, you are the one who needs to decide whether you will present your story as memoir or fiction.
I’ll leave you with my feelings about outside influences swaying your decision to write your story as memoir. It’s in the form of a quote that I’ll paraphrase. I believe it was Anne Lamott, but I’m not sure. And although the essence of it has been etched into my mind since I first heard it, the exact words escape me.
If the people in your life didn’t want you to write about them, they shouldn’t have behaved so poorly. And if they protest about what you’ve said, tell them to write their own @#&%ing book.
“Some people will applaud your candor; others will use it to pass judgment on you.”
The Truth and Nothing but the Truth
I couldn’t possibly close an article about memoir writing without touching on this subject.
Memoir took a beating a few years ago. With the controversy surrounding the James Frey and J.T. LeRoy incidents, the truth of personal memoir has been the subject of heated debate.
The argument can go on and on about the hazy nature of memories, the subjectivity of perception, and the pliancy of personal perspective. Yes, your memoir is the truth as you experienced it. But if you find yourself writing about people who did not exist, incidents that did not happen, and claiming to be something you are not, at least have the decency to admit that your story is fiction.
As a memoirist, it is your responsibility to your readers to be honest and ethical in the portrayal of your life. To manipulate the truth for the sake of notoriety and book sales is deceitful. Betray the trust of your readers and you may find they will no longer be your readers.
That’s a risk I don’t recommend you take.
Once you’ve made the decision to write your memoir, be confident in your contribution to the genre.
When I first read Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, there was a single revelation he made that was a thunderclap epiphany for me. He said that for many years he has been ashamed of what he writes. It wasn’t until he was forty years old that Stephen King finally accepted the value of his writing in the horror genre. Staggering. If one of the greatest horror writers of all time felt insecure about the significance of his writing contributions, then maybe for emerging authors, it was okay to have the same thoughts and feelings. King dragged that insidious writer demon into the light. The insecurities and self-doubt are normal and we’re not alone.
That is the power of personal memoir—the universal connection to your reader.
No matter whether you choose to write your story as fiction or you are ready to claim your life experiences and delve into writing a memoir, I hope these tips and suggestions help you draw from your life to create your story.
Annette Fix is an author and spoken word storyteller based in Laguna Niguel, CA. An excerpt from her e-book, The Hungry Writer’s Guide to Tracking and Capturing a Literary Agent was featured in WOW’s September 2006 issue. Annette’s memoir, The Break-Up Diet will be available in Early 2008.