In researching this topic, I searched first my own library for information on the subject; then I toddled over to the Google Machine. In my own library, I found a number of sources including some memoirs from friends and acquaintances as well as my own memoir.
In the Google Machine, my results were about several thousand resources...more than I could ever use. I must say, however, that I was able to size down to about 6 or 7 references that all (for the most part) seemed to agree with one another about constructing a memoir. I sliced and diced and put everything together and would like to share my thoughts on this subject with you.
Memoirs, like any other form of writing, are complex pieces to write. It takes a lot of skill and craft to be able to write down intimate details about our life. Essentially, this is a book written by us about a key time in our life. Communicating with our reader about this particular situation; sharing the lesson(s) learned about this time in our life, is indeed, a challenge.
So, let's start with a basic question:
What is the difference between an autobiography and a memoir?
An autobiography chronicles one’s entire life up to the point where the story ends (not necessarily the life!). It includes experiences of childhood, adolescence, adulthood, senior life, etc. An autobiography focuses on the chronology of the writer's entire life.
Everyone’s life has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and a memoir's purpose is to select lessons learned throughout this life. A memoir talks about a limited experience in a person's life. Generally, a memoir retells experiences or moments in a person's life with some true facts and some creative facts. It provides a much more specific timeline and a much more intimate relationship to the writer's own memories, feelings, and emotions. A memoir covers one specific aspect of the writer's life. A memoir focuses on one particular moment or series of moments around a theme or a continuous theme through memories.
A memoir is best classified as Creative Nonfiction - that is, it's a factual novel with some creative adjustments.
KEYS TO WRITING A MEMOIR
Let's start by introducing our story. We need to give our reader a sense of what our life is like now and how the memoir unfolds from our current life back to the situation we have chosen.
- Narrow our focus: A memoir is not designed to be a tome...it should be written as if the entire book is a snapshot of one experience of our life. ... the experience we choose should engage the reader through our emotions and enlighten our reader to who we are, and the lesson we are sharing with him/her.
- Include more than just our story: ... How does this experience apply to us? Include in our focus what we experience around us – our setting, other characters, what lessons we may have learned about ourself along the way.
- Share information about the people we encountered during this event and what part they may have played in our experience.
The people who read our book may do so because they just enjoy reading memoirs, regardless of their relationship with us, but they read because they want to know about us. Adding backstory and vivid details will enhance a reader’s knowledge of who we are and they will become engaged through the details of our story.
EXAMPLE: Think about this scenario: Writing about the experience of 4 years of high school…angst-ridden, hormone overload, failed romances, teacher crushes, plays, band, sports, etc. If 4 years is too long for you to absorb...maybe just Freshman year...or how about Senior year?
- Tell the truth: ... but is memory true?
Memories are slippery little devils, especially as we age and move further away from the experience we are writing about. We may have one memory, just as clear as crystal about an event, but when we talk to a brother or friend or other acquaintance about that same memory, that person may have a totally different recollection. Remember, our memory is just that…our memory, and should be expressed in the clearest, most entertaining way possible. How we use our memory to engage the reader will go the distance to allowing the reader to get to know us and understand the purpose of our story.
The truth of a memoir is seen through the author’s eyes. Memories are honest to us, as best they can be. And honesty is something we have to be careful with when we bring other people into the discussion. If our memoir has no other characters in it, we will be safe just relying on our memories, and we will write a dreadfully dull memoir.
But when we bring someone else into the story to interact with us, we must be careful about how we write about that other character(s). It is imperative that we not hurt or upset the people we place in our stories. And yet, it is important that we tell the truth — even if it makes our journey as an author more difficult.
If we have a thick skin and are prepared to expose ourself and all of our weaknesses, failures, or just plain humiliating experiences to our readers, what about those weaknesses we have seen in those around us? Our friends, enemies, loved ones, teachers, bosses, and co-workers may not care to have themselves put on display for others to read about.
If we tell the truth, are we allowed to throw other characters away with the bathwater? In some cases, yes, in some cases, no. If we are writing kind, complimentary stories, the chances of upsetting a person are slim. But a person painted in a negative light—even if the story is true—would not be received well. We should not write in an uncomplimentary manner, or deride someone in our story; we should not write with a bitter tone. This does not mean we should always be kind – if we have a memory that is hurtful, or sad, or angry, then we should express that, but we must always choose our words carefully. The motivation for writing a memoir shouldn’t be vengeance; our memoir should be designed to share our experience and the lesson(s) we learned from it.
We shouldn't exaggerate, lie, or even twist the truth. Our reader, especially one who knows us personally will immediately recognize falsehoods. We want our memoir to engage our reader, to pull him or her into the story, possibly through shared experiences, or at the very least through appealing writing.
SO, WHERE DO WE BEGIN?
Write It Like a Novel
A memoir is creative nonfiction and therefore, it cannot read like a textbook. Great writing is necessary for a great book. Our goal is to "hook" our reader, so we should employ the various elements of fiction to bring our story to life. ...
We begin by identifying that key life experience that we want to share with others. In a novel, the “situation” is an event that occurs from which the story grows. In a memoir, the “situation” is the message that we want to share with the world through our own real-life experiences.
As in a novel, how the protagonist (in this case, the author) grows is critical to a successful story. Our memoir should make clear the difference between who we are today and who we once were. What we learn along the way shows how our character grows. A memoir should pull its reader into the author’s life experience: her struggles, his successes, her dreams, his failures.
Since memoirs are written in the first person, the reader might identify with the author and her experiences. Me, me, me…I, I, I just may not be enough to fascinate the reader. What are the key characteristics that make us interesting? What will get the reader to identify with us? What motivated us during this time? Questions such as this are crucial to developing an engaging character for the reader to identify with.
We should introduce intriguing setting details; show our readers the locations -- not just describe them; evoke emotions within them through our description. The reader needs to experience our story not be told the story. We should make a point of including the 5 senses in our description…what we see, smell, touch, taste, and hear are important to bringing our reader into our story.
Viewpoint / Point of View
Telling vs Showing - It’s as important in a memoir as it is in a novel. To engage the readers we need to put them in our shoes. ... Viewpoint and POV allow our reader to experience our story as we experience it. Again, since the memoir is written in the first person, we will want our reader to become us through our word choices and the event we are writing about. The story should unfold through our reader’s eyes by using vivid language that helps them visualize each scene.
Create an emotional journey. ... We want our reader to turn the page, and the next, and the next: to think about and remember us well after they have finished the last page and closed the book; we want the reader to share her experience with her friends, her family, and her colleagues. To achieve this goal we must bring the reader into the story through active narrative and strong emotions about the pivotal events happening throughout your narration.
We need to create conflict and tension to bring excitement to the story.
In a novel, dialogue is not conversation. In everyday life, conversation, as we know it, takes many twists and turns as it moves from one person to the next. In a novel, dialogue serves many purposes, not the least of which is to pull the story along without any side trips.
Dialogue in a memoir is somewhat different; it is not necessarily accurate to the event. That is to say, we already know that a successful memoir will include several characters who each have a role to play, and those characters are not silent. When we reach down into our memory about the event, we recall that there was a conversation about a particular activity, but it is unlikely that we will recall the exact words from 50 years ago.
What’s important about the dialogue for every scene is the substance of the scene. Create the dialogue to enlighten the reader as to the point of the scene. Precise conversation is not as important as the essence of the scene.
COMMON MEMOIR MISTAKES TO AVOID
In my research for this presentation, I discovered that there are as many blogs, posts, articles, and books that discuss the “don’t” topic as there are that discuss the “do” topic.
As I read through them, I realized that each author has his or her special take on the “don’t do this” topic. Some of them made sense, some did not, but I did not see a lot of repeats in the topics, which meant to me that there were a lot of opinions and few good directions.
As a result, I suggest you Google “memoir mistakes” and select several of these articles to read. They will help you avoid some mistakes, but I felt that the advice in many cases was somewhat murky. So I leave you to determine which piece of advice you choose to follow.
We should put ourselves in the place of both the reader and the writer. Our goal is to take our readers on a memorable journey; to use every trick in our toolbox to bring each scene to life: dialogue, description, conflict, tension, pacing, everything.
Once we have decided upon the situation we want to talk about, we should search for the important anecdotes appropriate to each chapter and be creative in writing that chapter. We should make our details clear and not confuse our reader.
And just a side note...if you do not journal, you should. When someone from your family wants to write a memoir in 30 years, your journal will be invaluable to them!
Now, what we've discussed here is just the tip of the iceberg and several of these topics will be discussed in more detail in the coming weeks and months.
But for now, a few references that might help you withyour memoir are the following and all are available on Amazon should you wish to read them:
1. Essays on Growing up Middle Class in Post World War II America by Judith Reveal
2. Becoming Ann by Ann Hennessey
3. 96 And Going Strong by Bernard Bartels
4. Riding the Honeysuckle Horse by David Bershears
5. Writing Creative Nonfiction edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard
I hope you enjoyed this journey and I look forward to seeing you next week - same time, same station! Judy