Posts Tagged how to write memoir
I’ve recently been coaching a memoirist, and these are the key concepts we were musing about.
Show the struggles. Many people are spurred to write a memoir because they overcame a great trouble, survived against the odds or scored a personal success. But that postive focus can steer you wrong if you write a memoir about it. A memoir is not about how well you did or the things you should be congratulated for. It’s not about showing off. A memoir is about how hard everything was – and also how hilarious, heartbreaking and heartwarming. But mostly, it’s about how hard it was. So show us that.
Actually, struggle is the point of most stories, whether fiction or non-fiction. A story isn’t just the ‘what’, it’s the ‘how’. While there might be a limited number of plots and whats, there are infinite ‘hows’. The ‘hows’ contain the vibrant, varied stuff of life, and strife. And difficulty, and challenge, and humanity. They are the story.
Don’t focus exclusively on your strengths. They won’t make the reader root for you. If you show us how you successfully did something, the reader will think you found it easy. Especially if the success seems to come from a talent, or a birth circumstance, or a personality that is more courageous or rebellious than average. Your strengths are part of you, of course, and you’re right to be proud of them, but they don’t help the reader connect with you. But – reprising point 1 – struggle does make the reader connect. When we struggle, we are all in the same place – hopeless, lost, scared, angry, anxious, yearning, or making great sacrifices, or caught between several irreconcilable choices. That’s where we can all really talk to each other.
Some memoir manuscripts are dense screeds of narrative explanation. This can be dull to read. Memoirists often don’t realise they can give us ‘scenes’ as well, just as a novel would, where they describe actions and things people said.
‘I take it,’ they said, ‘that you speak good Spanish?’
‘Not one word,’ we said.
We all do this naturally in conversation anyway. And you can do it in memoir. Dramatising is good. Dialogue is good. Description and action are good too:
‘The judge turned to me and cocked a thick eyebrow…’
4 Structure and shape
Some memoir manuscripts are just a collection of anecdotes. No matter how interesting they are, the reader wants more. They seek a bigger structure and a shape, a beginning, middle and end. They want a reason why the story starts where it does, and why the end is the end (because it could go on through the rest of your life, couldn’t it?). The beginning won’t be your ‘I was born’ moment, either, or not always.
What about the stuff between the beginning and end? Aim for a sense of development, of things changing all the time. You’ll need turning points – which means you need an awareness of story structure. You might have seen screenwriters talk about the three-act structure – which, confusingly is actually four. Essentially, it’s where the reader starts to look for a bigger change, and it usually comes at the quarter marks of the book.
So at some point you should plan how the overall journey will work, the phases the book will go through. Look for distinct turning points, and massage the writing so they fall at the quarter points of the book. By three-quarters of the way through, the amount of struggle should be reaching its most significant point, with the biggest pressures. The final part of the book will be trying to establish a new order, ready for a new status quo. (There’s loads more about story structure here. )
Wait! Your story is real life. Some phases might have taken years. Others happened over a few hectic and traumatic days. How will it fit this pattern? Remember, you are not creating a day-by-day diary, you’re creating a ‘story’, which is an artistic construct. You are also adding – interpretation, emphasis, insight and context. Maybe including flashbacks for back story. All of this allows you to shorten or lengthen, in order to give the reader the best experience.
The reader wants significance. They want to feel your story is interesting and also universal. Whatever it starts with, whatever you do, a memoir isn’t just about you, fighting your plucky battles, finding your way through. It’s also about the reader and the big truth we are all involved in.
You often have to dig for the real heart of an incident, why it matters enough to be in the book. So splurge about everything, as if no one’s there, all the time in the world, no book to fill. Just take a stroll with your thoughts, dwell in them. You’ll write far too much, but it’s how you find the gems. Then open your eyes and start to think of the reader. You might also find that some experiences you thought were formative were not.
You won’t necessarily know the book’s truest shape until you do this.
Write with a sense of learning about yourself. That journey of discovery will also become the reader’s. In the end, your book will bring you – and them – to a new place, perhaps wiser, perhaps comforted, perhaps entertained, perhaps changed, perhaps renewed. Perhaps everything.
That’s why they should read about your life.
There’s loads more about story structure in my plot book.
If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
This email just arrived.
I have completed a manuscript about my childhood trauma and how it shaped my life, to tell my truth, to finally heal and put it behind me. I need to know if it is good enough to publish and am therefore seeking an editor who can proofread and correct mistakes.
Has any other year taken us so far into reflection and self-examination? These last few weeks I’ve had many emails like this.
So if you’re considering these questions, here are some answers.
You don’t need an editor yet
The first phase isn’t to look for an editor! Especially not a paid one. But you’re right to seek another opinion on the manuscript.
Beyond spelling, proofreading and publishable writing
You need to look at more than spelling mistakes and proofreading.
Here’s something that few people suspect unless they’ve had a memoir published. The manuscript that the writer completes, in those solitary, searching hours, is not usually ready for readers. This is not a question of spelling and polish. It’s about writercraft and your audience.
The writer’s draft, the reader’s draft
We write memoirs, initially, for ourselves. And that’s a considerable feat. We collect the material, get it straight in our minds and set on the page. Talk our soul through its troubles, tell it to the page. Bring order, maybe catharsis, closure.
For some, that journey may be enough – and has immense value in itself. But that’s not usually a version you can publish.
Not just about you
For a reader, the memoir is not just about you. It is a journey for them to understand the world through your unique experience. While they will respect your honesty and ordeals, and will want to be on your side, they’ll need help.
There is much your reader will find difficult to understand – people, behaviour, motivations. So they will need context – more than you realise.
They’ll also need more insight than your private memoir might have provided – insight about the other people, insight about you. Memoirs of this type have to navigate some of our most uncomfortable behaviour – when we were deluded, or scared, or cruel. When you write for yourself, you might not have to acknowledge all these dimensions, especially if you’ve been harshly wronged. But if you write for a reader – who is a stranger – you often need a higher degree of wisdom about everybody’s muddles, imperfections and worries. You don’t necessarily need to forgive or redeem them. But you do need to understand them.
You also have to apply these principles to yourself. Although you’re the ‘I’ voice, the reader doesn’t know you. To them, you are a character in the story, so you must present yourself with the same care, context and insight as any other character, so the reader can know you. This might involve considerable self-examination.
As well as reaching this state of insight, a memoir also needs writercraft. Real life is sprawling and messy. It’s writing craft that will organise this sprawl in a way that will keep the reader engaged.
You need a structure, with a beginning, an end, and some turning points along the way. Although these ideas are more commonly discussed for fiction, they’re just as necessary for real-life stories because they’re essentially how you keep the reader’s curiosity, empathy and attention. Real life doesn’t, in real time, fit narrative paradigms, but you can stretch and condense passages so they form a narrative shape that is compelling.
Especially, consider the ending. Your experience, as lived by you, doesn’t have an ending, but the reader needs one. Where will you let them go? At what point have you given them a satisfying experience? Your book’s ending might be anywhere in the real chronology – in adulthood if the story happened to you as a child. Or you might prefer a more adventurous structure – beginning with the present, swinging backwards in time, then coming again to the present with new eyes. Time in real life is unreversible; in narratives it can do whatever you like.
Other points about structure
There’s also the pacing. Someone else’s pain can quickly become abstract and repetitive. Even the most sympathetic reader can become dulled unless you keep a sense of narrative progress. There’s more about this in my plot book.
How many characters?
You also might have to reorganise your characters. In your personal memoir, the version behind closed doors, you probably included absolutely everyone. But this might be too many characters for a reader to grasp.
Why is this a problem? It’s because the reader is not you. To you, each person is different and distinct, drawn into your story in their own ways. You know all of these intimately, because you lived it, but you don’t have the space to give all that context to the reader. So in a memoir, you usually need to trim your characters.
Also, you need to think about them as dramatic roles in your journey. You often need to combine several real people into one character who represents a force – a supporter, a mentor, an antagonist.
A further point. Can you write about these real people? Even if they’ve moved on from your life and you don’t see them face to face, the internet can keep everyone together. And publishing a book certainly can. You are only a tweet or an email away from anyone’s reaction. You might have to worry about libel, so you have to be very careful about what you say about a person who can be identified.
To answer the question: do you need an editor?
An editor is not what you need at the moment. What you should do now is more drafts.
Keep this one. It serves a valuable purpose in itself. Start a new version, the reader’s version. This time, look beyond your pain.
Look beyond yourself too. A memoir needs to understand everyone, or at least give them the chance to be understood. This applies also to you. There’ll be things you’ll wish you’d done differently, for good or bad. Your actions, reactions and protective behaviour. Understand yourself in those moments and those decisions. You will judge yourself a lot, but while you do that, also remember you’re human. And so is everyone else in your story.
Although you might not need an editor at this stage, you might benefit from a writing buddy who can look at the manuscript and explain where they don’t understand your thinking, where you’ve failed to give context. If you’re struggling to find a structure, they can also suggest where you turned a corner and didn’t realise. And even where you might end.
This might take many passes. That’s normal. I’ve been interviewing a few memoir writers recently on this blog and their books took years – to acquire the distance, the wisdom, the fullest appreciation. Find them here.
First, breathe. Then write a draft for the reader.
Thanks for the green shoot pic, Neal Herbert, Australian Dept of the Interior
If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.
I’ve had this question from Julia.
I would like to write a nonfictional account of my experience as a caregiver of my 80-year-old mum during lockdown. I’ve never done any creative writing. Where do I start? A diary, a memoir? I’ve been through a lot of struggle and want to put that on paper. Maybe someday I will publish it to share my experience with people facing the same difficulties.
First, Julia, capture the raw material. Start with a diary. Write it as often as possible, before you make any decisions about what to do with it.
How to write the diary
You might be self-conscious to begin with. You might worry about who will read it and what they’ll get from it. Forget that for now.
You won’t publish this diary. It’s notes that you will eventually use to create a book. So for now, it’s you and your thoughts, talking privately to a page or a recording app – whatever is comfortable.
Keep it simple. Just write what you did today. Then write whether that was usual or unusual, and how. If it’s usual, for how long has it been usual? Write how that made you feel, what was difficult and what was a pleasure, and why. Write what you think tomorrow will be like. Or next week. Write your hopes and pleasures and fears.
Do this every day, or as often as you can.
Don’t worry about repeating yourself. Don’t try to edit as you go. You’re not trying to write the proper book yet. That’s a separate job for later. Just capture vivid moments, hours, days, weeks, in all their honesty. But you probably won’t repeat yourself as much as you think. Even if the events are largely the same, your thoughts and insight will evolve. You will also become better at sharing deeply.
When you’re comfortable with this, start to include other material that will be meaningful for a reader. Context that lets us know who you are, where you’re coming from, how this is changing your life and changing you. At some point, write what you were doing five years ago, 10 years ago, one year ago. Anything that feels significant.
This will be an emotional document. You might regret things you wrote in earlier pages. If so, do not delete them.
This is an essential part of your growth. It is the truth of the situation you seek to share. You’re not trying to be a perfect person; you’re aiming to be an honest human who is sometimes angry or self-indulgent or wrong or foolish. So if you find yourself disappointed about earlier writings, examine that disappointment, and what you would now do or think differently. Recognise also that you are likely to change your mind again.
Start planning the book
After a while, you’ll notice patterns and themes. Continue to write your daily accounts, but start a separate textfile or notebook. You’re now ready to think about the big picture. How you’ll use your diaries to create a book that can connect with others.
Certain material in the diary won’t be relevant. Also, you’ll need to add. But remember, a memoir isn’t your whole life; it’s usually the story of a specific struggle. You might have many memoirs in you. What is the focus of this one?
We are made of many memoirs
At the same time, this focus might be more complex and far-reaching than you initially thought – this situation might force you to grapple with other problems and issues. Or you might want to include material about other significant people – perhaps your mother herself. Write notes to experiment with these ideas. See what seems a natural fit.
Also, look for what makes your story unique. Although you are writing about a situation that others also find themselves in, yours will have a unique impact on you, and you will have a unique way of handling it.
Other aspects to consider
Two more links on gathering material and shaping it for others to read. My radio show with Peter Snell. Also this post about the writing of Not Quite Lost (a much happier subject, but it started with private diaries).
More on choosing what to focus on, the idea that our lives contain many stories – how fiction writers adapt to memoir.
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
Remember me. The haunting refrain of Dido’s Lament begins this episode. Today we’re dsicussing the most personal kind of writing – memoir. Why would you write a memoir? Revenge? Relief? To make a memorial? Or simply to find a use for your diaries? To tell the unseen things nobody ever knew about you? And here’s the next question: who will read it? Also, what should you include and what should you leave out?
My co-host is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.
PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.