Sunday, October 25, 2020

Notes on writing a memoir

A memoir is built on memories—memoire is the French word for memory, after all, but also the word for memorandum or record—and, since a memoir is a story that relies on memory, how you remember, what you remember, and why you remember will determine the kind of memoir you write.

Memories have the ability to transport us to another time and place, to allow us to relive a moment with someone who is gone, to recapture an emotion that we long to have again, a relationship, perhaps, with someone who inspired us to be who we are or to do something that set us on a new path. Our memories can be filled with love and joy, with laughter and kisses and hugs… with tastes and smells… with sights that brought us much pleasure at one time in our life.

But some of our memories can be dark, as well, and dangerous. They can contain an event or a person that we’d rather forget. A time when we might not have been our best self. When we might have done something we still regret. Memories can be filled with disappointment, fear, anger, frustration, sadness, grief, loss. They can be places we don’t want to ever return to, places we have blocked off with yellow police tape that warns us: DON’T CROSS! But they can offer us rich material for stories, too.

The kind of memoir you write will depend on your willingness to look back—honestly, unflinchingly—into the past.

A good way to understand what a memoir is …is to view it as describing an important moment in your life, a pivotal moment,  a moment that you recreate using the tools of a storyteller. 

Your feelings and assumptions are central to the narrative. Unlike in an autobiography, which would explore your entire life and focus on the facts (the who, what, where, how, and why), you have more flexibility writing a memoir.

You can tell the story as you remember it. The focus is on your way of understanding your experiences… your feelings and your assumptions. Plus, you have the freedom to tell the story in chronological order. Or not.

The process of writing a memoir is multi-layered. For the sake of simplicity, let’s divide the process into three-steps:

1. Finding a memory or memories

First there’s finding the memory, recalling the event or experience. How do we find memories. Here are some suggestions that might prove helpful:

  • Your own recall—based on your memory of a certain experience,
  • Photographs/albums/slides/movies. 
  • Letters/journals.
  • Magazines/newspapers (digital collections in the Library of Congress and elsewhere).
  • Family stories.
  • Maps - of cities or neighborhoods, or, even better, make your own map (maybe of the house or neighborhood where you used to live).
  • Smells, scents that linger—what your mom made on Friday night, your dad's aftershave?
  • Sensations — a mother’s goodnight kiss, the feel of a basketball in your hand.
  • Tastes, food that you remember — ice cream on the Fourth of July, apples in the fall.

2. Writing down the details of the memory

Second, there’s writing down the details of the memory. Here are some suggestions to get you started: 

  • Use a journal or a pad of paper or a computer… find a favorite pen. I started using a fountain pen a few months ago.
  • All you’re doing is sketching, putting down as many details as you can recall, including any dialogue or conversation that you remember.
  • You don’t have to put the details down in order chronologically; just write them down as you recall them, as they come to you.
  • Let the image or images form in your head. Take a few moments to remember before you start writing. Then use words to describe the image that you see. What is there? Who is there? Where are you?
  • Some writers can view their memory as a film and can control the pace of the film and what the camera focuses on so they can view the scene or image in slo-motion and watch it unfold… and writing becomes an act of describing what they see.
  • Don’t worry about each sentence or making it perfect; all you want are the words to help you recollect a memory. Use broad strokes.
  • Put whatever you've written aside for a day or two, come back to it fresh, look at the page and what you created with words, the emotions, if any, that you can feel… and find the places where the emotions are strongest, the images clearest, and begin there. 

3. Shaping the memory into a story.

Third, there’s shaping the details of the memory into a story that recaptures the memory so others can experience it through your words. Here are some things to think about as you begin shaping your story:

  • Begin at the beginning and write all the way to the end. That’s what one of my writing teachers once told me.
  • How do you know where to begin? In the middle of the action? Or before the action starts? Or after it’s over, using the story as a flashback? It’s your decision. Read other memoirs. See how other writers begin their stories.
  • How do you know when to end? This is harder. It’s not always clear to the writer when to end the story. Usually you can feel the story shut like a door and there’s a satisfying click at the end when it’s over. The ending should let you hear that satisfying click.
  • Think of a narrative, a story, with a rising arc. 
  • Figure out if there’s any conflict in your story.
  • Is there any tension? Where’s it coming from?
  • Are you in the story or just the narrator?
  • Use dialogue (conversation/inner dialogue) to draw the reader into the story.
  • What’s your relationship to the memory, to the people in the story?
  • Why is this memory important to you? 
  • Why do you want to share it? (This can help you identify its theme, and possibly the conflict.)

Voice is an essential part of writing a memoir, as well. Often, a narrator’s voice can make you feel as if she is sitting beside you telling you her story. Almost like she's revealing a family secret.  

Details draw us in, too, and our sense of a potential conflict.

As you read memoirs written by other writers, consider what compels you to keep reading. Is it voice? A sympathetic character? Conflict?

Here are a few more questions to think about:

  • Are you able to tell your story using a natural, non-pretentious, inviting voice?
  • Does your story have a beginning, middle, and end?
  • Is there a dramatic moment, a compelling incident, that grabs our interest, on which the story turns?
  • Does the background setting play a part in our understanding of the story and the characters in the story?
  • Does the story have a deep meaning for you, and are you able to convey the depth of your emotion to the reader in an intimate way?Hope these notes help.

For more information about writing memoirs, visit:

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