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Some Thoughts About Writing a Memoir

   In a memoir you want to write a story about a significant part of your life. It should engage your reader and convey something important that you have learned by living through a significant turning point. And then you need to stop.


It’s not an autobiography.

   It’s a story, a gift to your readers of your experience that may save them from making a mistake that you made. Or better yet, it may inspire them, give them courage, or guide them to an epiphany that will illuminate their lives. As William Zinsser, one of my writing heroes, put it:

   “Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction.

   You must have a tangible purpose and a coherent story about your quest for that purpose. In weighing that purpose, you should also consider whether it will give your readers something to enrich their lives, take them to places they’ve never experienced or broaden their vision of what life can be about. Patricia Hampl wrote that “True memoir is written, like all literature, in an attempt to find not only a self but a world.”


   That world may – and often is – an interior world, the place inside the author where the true struggle to live heroically takes place. As Caroline Knapp once wrote,

   “By definition, memoir demands a certain degree of introspection and self-disclosure: In order to fully engage a reader, the narrator has to make herself known, has to allow her own self-awareness to inform the events she describes.”


It May Inspire Readers, or it May Simply Share Something Precious.

   Your memoir, if it succeeds, may make a difference in the lives of people in all sorts of unexpected places. The power of shared experience, after all, can inspire our fellow humans. Some writers insist that should be its main purpose. Mitch Albom, for example wrote that “A memoir should have some uplifting quality, inspiring or illuminating, and that’s what separates a life story that can influence other people.

   Other readers are satisfied if the memoir gives them a window into a kind of life they have never experienced. David Mahmet is among them:

   “I love all insider memoirs. It doesn’t matter whether it’s truck-drivers or doctors. I think everybody likes to go backstage, find out what people think and what they talk about and what specialised job they have.”



What About the Balance Among Truth, Memory, and Invention?

   Either way, you have to reach into your memory and create the story. “Memoir is the art of inventing the truth,” wrote William Zinsser, who also observed:

   “To write a good memoir you must become the editor of your own life, imposing on an untidy sprawl of half-remembered events a narrative shape and an organizing idea. Memoir is the art of inventing the truth.”

   The great novelist, Isabel Allende, reinforced this theme when she confessed that

   “A memoir forces me to stop and remember carefully. It is an exercise in truth. In a memoir, I look at myself, my life, and the people I love the most in the mirror of the blank screen. In a memoir, feelings are more important than facts, and to write honestly, I have to confront my demons.”



A Story with a Point – A Particular Hero’s Journey: Yours

   Crafting a good memoir requires the same combination of inventive storytelling as writing fiction. If you fail to make the story vivid, you are in danger of losing your reader. There are reasons for that. One is that the human brain demands stories. Story is built in. The brain evolved around language, which in tandem evolved to enable humans to tell one another about what happened somewhere else. Telling and hearing stories are at the heart of our minds’s functions.


   And stories must make sense; beginning middle, and end, they must have a point. And, come to think of it, if you don’t have a point, a lesson, a description of your passage through the narrow place, why are you writing? Andre Aciman summed it up well:

   “Writing the past is never a neutral act. Writing always asks the past to justify itself, to give its reasons… provided we can live with the reasons. What we want is a narrative, not a log; a tale, not a trial. This is why most people write memoirs using the conventions not of history, but of fiction.”

   So – a journey, a purpose, selective memory, imposing structure on an untidy story about a part of your life: not an easy assignment.


   Once you decide it’s for you, though, you face the demands of the writer’s craft. Sloppy writing turns away readers as surely as does sloppy plotting and lack of attention to the basics of story-telling. Your writing needs to be clear, concise, and convincing.


   Your story needs to read interesting. It needs to include vivid scenes, believable, sympathetic characters, and a story line that links them together and pulls your reader along from the inciting incident through the ordeal to a climax and on to the final outcome.


You can do that.


   Along your way, you may run into obstacles. Writers do, especially writers of fiction. You can’t think what to write next. You can’t seem to tie the end of the story to the middle or fit that sub-plot into the overall narrative without including too much boring detail. Yes, those are the problems writers face. But



There are some obstacles that are peculiar to memoirs.

   Perhaps the one that will cause the most apprehension, as it should, is including people whom you either love or hate. How do you tell the truth about the times you have shared intimate experiences or secrets with a person, or about the betrayal that set you on your path through the obstacles to victory without embarrassing them – or worse, provoking them to file a libel suit? Here is an excerpt from an email I received from a truly gifted client. I had sent her a list of problems that memoir writers commonly face, and she replied:

   “Thank you so much for that. Yes I worry about two. . . . things: that no one will care about the story and that someone will be upset about what I wrote about them. Of the two, the second one I worry about constantly. I think I have portrayed everyone as true to their actions and have tried to just show what they did but I am still scared of that aspect. It is at least a little bit reassuring that other people think like this as well.”

   It may not surprise you that I have no answer for that one, no wise quotation from a famous author or even an editor of memoirs. I think every writer seeks her own answers. For the writer quoted here, whose memoir described life aboard a Navy ship, the solution lay in the Navy custom of addressing one another on shipboard only by rank or job title. Thus her characters became “Chief” and “Doc” and “Seaman 3rd” or “HM3” instead of Joe, Ethan, or Ellen. But other stories demand more subtle solutions, perhaps better solved by two or more minds working together, or perhaps with legal advice.



What Does All This Have to Do With Editing?

   So how does all this relate to editing? I’ll leave that to another entry and post it another time. But I think that most people who are smart enough to write a memoir are also smart enough to anticipate the help that a second mind in conversation can bring to the writer stumbling her way through the dark swamp of the soul [“Pretentious metaphor?”, an editor would ask about that one.]


   But in any case, I hope it’s evident how a developmental editor might provide focus, tantalizing ideas, and a sympathetic, even insightful, partner for discussing unanswerable problems as the writer grapples with all the questions about what to include and exclude, how to place a scene in the right spot, and how to anticipate what the reader doesn’t know and fill that in without losing the momentum — and the reader.


What? You’re Still Reading?

   You are worthy of embarking on the arduous journey that starts with nothing but your determination and a blank page and ends with your completed project that says exactly what you want to say in your true voice, that unfolds in the right order and pace, that is free of slip-ups and errors, and that will move your reader the way you intend.



   Feel free to go to the Contact Me page and share your ideas with me. No charge for that.