Write for Your Life: 7 Tips for Memoirs
Got the urge to write? Thinking about doing a memoir? Unsure what will make it worth reading?
With three memoirs under my belt, a fourth in process, and a lifetime as a writer in one way or another, I have some thoughts on the topic I’d like to pass along.
1. Corral a Focus
Pick an event you participated in, a lesson you learned, a challenge you overcame, or some other single focus to write about. A memoir isn’t the story of your entire life. It’s a Polaroid, a snapshot in time. Narrowing down your writing intention to one thing – even if that one thing has multiple parts or a chronology of smaller moments – will make it so much easier to write.
How I do it ---- The focus for my first memoir was the search for my bio-mom. I'd just been through the agony of that and needed to discharge the frustration of it.
For my second, the focus was what happened when I reunited with a long lost love. Similar prompt, and this is what fiction calls an inciting incident. But you don't have to write right after something major happens. These first two incidents just lent themselves to that.
My third memoir returned to the family theme, with the focus on the journey my bio-mom took from pregnancy to birthing. This one came 10 years after the first as a felt need to fill in my bio-mom's backstory of what that first pregnancy was like for her.
The current work in process memoir has a focus of fitting in and standing out during my four years living abroad. This one started as a paragraph in a running list I've been making of all big and small memories I can still recall throughout my entire life -- a project that keeps me from watching tv all day now that I'm retired.
The list will never be published, but my kids might be entertained or shocked after I'm gone. And once in a while I look to see if I can turn anything on the list into a full blown book.
2. Sketch Out Everything You Remember
Memory is tricky. Any psychologist and every lawyer will tell you that. It’s possible, even likely, that once you start mining the depths of your memories about your focus, contradictory versions will pop up. That’s okay. Don’t worry about that initially. Just get all the pieces sketched out to start with. The more you sketch, the more you’ll get clarity about what really happened.
How I do it ---- I start with just making notes, asking myself what do I remember, how did it feel, what did it look like, what was real then, what colored my perceptions, where did it happen, who else was there and how did they make it harder or easier. And so on. I just throw a bunch of memory spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks as meaningful to write about.
3. A First Draft is Supposed to Be Messy
Release yourself from the fantasy that your first draft will be publishable. That should never happen. But if you have an orderly mind, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be organized in your first draft. Create chapters that make sense and revise them later when you have a more editorial perspective. Unless you’re experienced and comfortable with formatting, don’t worry about that during the writing process. Just write and write and write until you can’t think of anything about the essence of the story that you’ve not included.
How I do it ---- I’m a sequential thinker, so I tend to write the what happened in memoirs in chronological order. Then I go back and fill in the sensory and emotional details. Lastly, usually, I try to find the meaningful insight I gained from navigating that timeframe, dealt with various other people, tried and failed, recovered and refocused myself.
4. Outline or Not
Outlining is one personal process. It’s not for everyone. If it helps you, fine. If you get stymied by trying to outline, then forget it. You'll hear people who don't outline called "pantsers", as in writing by the seat of your pants. Authors who outline tend to be called "plotters", and yes, memoirs should have a plotline of some kind, just like fiction. But it doesn't have to be a formal outline.
How I do it ---- Once I have my focus and the memories start flooding in, I’m compelled to try to organize them into chapters. I name my chapters mostly as a prompt for my writing, and might remove and almost always change the chapter names in the final editing. I have found it useful to also put in a bullet list of what happenings each chapter will address. That helps me avoid writer’s block. Not exactly outlining per se, but a useful kind of stepping stone guide to keep me on track.
Sometimes I feel the need to see all the chapter bullet lists into an at-a-glance format so I don't have to keep scrolling back and forth through the manuscript. So I create a table usually 5 cells across and however many are needed down, and put keywords for each chapter into each cell with the chapter number at the top of the cell.
When I think I'm done with a chapter I add the word count for that chapter to that top line. That helps me see which chapters are too long and need to be divided, or to short and need to be expanded. I don't know if something similar can be done in the various writing apps I've heard recommended. I write in Microsoft Word.
5. Write Like You Speak
One sure fire way to get stuck when you write is to hear your college English class professor in your head. Kick her out! No one wants to read a memoir that sounds like an academic paper, not even the academics. Write like you are telling the story out loud around a campfire, or with your grandchildren gathered on the floor around your rocking chair. Your speaking voice holds your personality, and that’s what readers want to hear.
Avoid like Covid and shingles (or an STI if you're in a younger generation) a dry, sterile, precise, formal writing voice. If sass and sarcasm are a trademark of your personality, don't avoid that in your memoir --- but do use it carefully and get feedback on it. Not all readers will get the humor of that.
How I do it ---- No kidding, I imagine I’m sitting at a bar with a new lover and it’s vitally important that I spill my guts and spin a storytelling spell that gets laughs and tears and hopefully some empathy, and maybe a lobster dinner after. (See what I mean?)
6. Read Celebrity Memoirs
Why? Because you’ll start to get the flavor of what makes a compelling read. Because these are mostly ghost written by professionals, these memoirs provide a look at a standard for storytelling to strive for. That doesn’t mean you need to become a professional to write your memoir, but you’ll get a better sense of pacing, disclosure, significance, and tone.
Some I Recommend ---- Born with Teeth by Kathryn Mulgrew, Becoming by Michelle Obama, Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright, Waypoints by Sam Heughan, Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe. And yes, even Spare by Prince Harry or Still Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton, although both of those might also provide some insight on how much disclosure and personal angst is too much.
7. Polish Up, Then Wait
We all need a little feedback and advice about our writing. Find friends or writing groups who will give objective responses in a sensitive way. Editors can be hired. Cover designers may need to be invested in if you don’t have an artistic eye and skill. Get that manuscript polished up and then set it aside for a month. Turn your mind to something else for a while, then come back to the memoir and read it through like any buyer would. Find the missed typos, the faulty grammar, the redundancies, and put the writing through the highest quality editing and proof reading you can afford before publishing.
How I Do It ---- When I think I’m done with a memoir or any other book, I set it aside and refer to that as putting it in the cooler. I work on something else while the memoir is cooling off such as this blog, premarketing, cover design, another manuscript, etc. When I come back to it, I use the Word read aloud function to hear the writing in another voice. That always helps me catch things that don’t make sense, or have been poorly written. Then I offer the manuscript up to volunteer readers for feedback before self-publishing.
I hope these tips are useful to novice writers. There is, of course, so much more to the process of writing and publishing. I may have more thoughts in future. I’m always looking for questions in Facebook groups that new writers have and try to help where I can. Questions specifically for me can be left at my author page at Facebook.com/DeahCurry