People—me included—love reading memoirs because they are true stories that give us insight into someone else’s experience. Memoirs differ from autobiographies in that they only cover a short period of time, not an entire life. Also, they are understood to be the author’s experience rather than an objective document. Here are five things to consider when writing a memoir:
1. What is the purpose of your memoir?
You can write a memoir as therapy, an effective way to understand and cope with a confusing or traumatic experience. As Abigail Thomas says, “Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and how you got to be who you are.”
When you are done, put it in a drawer because it is only of interest to you. You can also write a memoir for your children or grandchildren, so that they know something of your life. This is a fine reason for writing a memoir; just remember that it will not be of interest to those who do not know you. If you want to write for the general public, for publication, then the memoir must be about something that they will find interesting.
2. How do you want to structure it?
While there are many interesting ways to structure a book, it is best for a first-time memoirist to stick to the tried-and-true format used in most novels. Some incident initiates the action which builds through a series of scenes to a climax and resolution, after which the protagonist has been changed. Read lots of memoirs to see what other writers have done. I’ve included a list of my favorites below.
3. When should you create an outline?
Authors debate this endlessly. Some start with a detailed outline. Some just start writing and trust that a story will emerge. Some, like me, take a middle path of starting with a general outline that I modify as I go along. Whichever path you take, after completing the first draft you should make an outline to ensure that your scenes are in the right order and that you have only included scenes that move the story forward.
4. How can you get started?
Whether you start out writing by hand or on the computer, that blank page is daunting. One way to start is to keep a journal devoted to your memoir. Another useful technique, especially at the beginning of each writing session is freewriting where you just write anything at all for a set period of time, say ten minutes. Julia Cameron calls these Morning Pages. You can also try writing on index cards, as Nabokov did. Such a small space may seem less scary. Thinking about Memoir, by Abigail Thomas has some excellent exercises.
5. Do you have to tell the truth?
Yes. That’s why they call it nonfiction. Granted, some writers add fictional elements and get away with it. An example is Edmund Morris who got bored while writing his biography of Ronald Reagan, Dutch, and inserted himself, Forest Gump-wise, as a character participating in major events of Reagan’s life. The controversy that ensued helped sell his book, but added to the general distrust of memoir writers. Don’t forget the outcry over the discovery that other supposed memoirs were mostly fiction, such as James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, Herman Rosenblat’s Angel at the Fence, and Margaret B. Jones’s Love and Consequences. To me, fictionalizing a memoir is like the boy crying wolf: how can you expect people to believe the truthful bits? And telling the truth is the whole power behind a memoir.
Twelve memoirs I recommend:
- Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov
- The Road to Coorain, Jill Kerr Conway
- Tesserae, by Denise Levertov
- A Romantic Education, Patricia Hampl
- The Enigma of Arrival, V.S. Naipaul
- Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
- Hons and Rebels, by Jessica Mitford
- Growing Up, Russell Baker
- Father and Son, by Edmund Gosse
- In Fond Remembrance of Me, by Howard Norman
- The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
- The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, by Marion Winik
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B. Morrison is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and a poetry collection, Here at Least. Visit her website and Monday Morning Book Blog. Follow her on Twitter @bmorrison9 and on Goodreads
You can also check out the Facebook page for Innocent for further discussions about poverty and memoir writing.