Eight points for writing a memoir in personal essays

My current work in progress is a memoir in essays, in the vein of Not Quite Lost.

It’s been growing organically. First I had the urge to write A Something. Then another Something, which seemed to belong with the first. Now there’s a sizeable collection that wants to be a book. It’s ready for the real work.  

Here’s the real work.

1 Look for a subject

What themes are singing out of the material? What is my subject and what is worth saying about it? A memoir like this needs direction. (Even if the point is travelling without a sense of direction, as I did the first time.)

A reminder: a memoir is not autobiography. It’s not everything that happened to you. It has a subject – like divorce, or friendship, or chef training or becoming a shepherd. You might contain one autobiography, but many memoirs.

A memoir also, usually, has an argument – so it’s not just how you became a shepherd, it’s what you want to tell us about humanity.  

2 Look for a running order

A memoir – of any type – needs a narrative arc. Even if life isn’t neat, the memoir needs an ordered shape and a sense of development. You’re making art out of life. This also means it doesn’t have to unfold chronologically. In my memoir, some pieces are back story but I might leave them until late. Some are asides that are outside chronology. Everything will be placed to serve the main subject and argument, for resonance or contrast or reinforcement. I’m creating the running order before I do any editing, while the pieces are still rough. Then I’ll know how to shape them.

3 Look for repetition

I’ve built the book by writing whenever the wind was in my sails. To preserve the spontaneity, I didn’t reread anything. It’s highly likely I’ve written some ideas several times over. Now I need to find those accidental repetitions. However, not all repetition is bad. Sometimes a short repetition will enhance, like a refrain. 

4 Anxiety

I’m hoping I haven’t repeated myself too much, or it might be a very short book. (NB All books involve anxiety. Will it work? Is there enough?)

5 Look for a title

Why is it that the shortest pieces of writing take the longest time? Oh, the woe of finding a title. (I’ve written about titles here and there’s a titles workshop in my workbook.)

For this book, I have many near-titles but nothing ideal. They’re in a text file. A long list, riffing on an idea, changing a noun or a verb, stumbling on a new word and doing it all over again.

(Wait! Stumbling on… I never tried that.)

This task travels with me most of the time. When I’m not at my computer, I worry at the title on scraps of paper. They look like the ravings of a person with an obsession. But the perfect title will pull the whole book into place.

6 It’s okay to make a mess

I’ve written the pieces with illiterate abandon. If they are somehow found by someone else before I can edit them, I will die of embarrassment.

I’m a fan of the uninhibited, slapdash first draft. Precision can come later. So can context and other courtesies. What’s more important to me is the spirit in the words, the raw moment that goes wherever and winds up somewhere surprising.

7 Structure will get you out of mess

I often say this when I’m coaching novelists: the words are the skin. The real work of the story is done by the structure – what you emphasise, what you make the reader look at and feel. So it is with this kind of memoir. The structure will tell you how to edit. Once you know a piece’s overall role in the book, you can edit with confidence. (There’s loads more about structure in my plot book.)

8 Read with a pen

Reading is a highly interrupted activity at the moment. Prose is a trigger. I look like a person with no attention span as I put the book down and scramble a note. If a book’s in the same territory as my WIP, it makes me write. If a book isn’t, it still makes me write. That’s how you know you’ve got a book going on.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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  1. #1 by Rae Longest on July 12, 2022 - 6:14 pm

    Very helpful info for my Advanced Writing students who will be studying memoir this coming semester…thanks!

  2. #3 by @NicolaP on July 17, 2022 - 8:58 pm

    Thank you. I have just referenced this for my MA in Creative Writing – I’m discussing why and who writes memoir or creative non-fiction. Thanks.

  3. #5 by Terri Lewis on July 18, 2022 - 10:14 pm

    I’m thinking of doing this. I have 3 pieces written (you can see one here – since you looked at my blog, I thought you might be interested – https://hippocampusmagazine.com/2022/07/foreign-by-terri-lewis/) I have a few more ideas simmering. This post is a boost.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 19, 2022 - 6:46 am

      Terri, honoured to have you here! Foreign is a beautiful piece. I would love to read more from you.

  1. Tips for Writing Memoir | Anatomy of Perceval Blog

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