On Writing Memoir

 In Blog

Most of us want to know that we matter and that our lives matter.  Leaving a written memoir is a legacy of sorts, a way of documenting what small impact we hope we have had in the lives of others.  We write memoir to bear witness to those we love, about those we know, and about our own lives.

Memoir is a type of creative nonfiction with three key components: it is nonfictional, it is based on the truth of the author’s own life and memories, and it is written from the author’s point of view.  Memoir differs from autobiography in that autobiographies tell the complete stories of a person’s life in comprehensive detail, integrating information about the context of a person’s life story (i.e., politics, world events); and strictly document facts and events without embellishment in an objective way.  Memoir, on the other hand, tends to focus on a certain period or series of related events in the author’s life.  As such, memoir should be a first-hand retelling of those things. 

Memoirs can be book-length or take the form of short essays or stories.  They tend to focus on the emotional impact of events as they occurred.  When beginning to work on a piece of memoir writing, you should know what “the heart of the story” is, or what the key event/message is that you want to communicate.  Think of one key event from your life that will really reinforce this message.   In order to keep things interesting for your reader, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this something that will have universal appeal?
  • Will the message resonate with a broad audience?
  • Will readers identify with my experiences? 
  • What is unique about my perspective that will engage readers? 

I find it helpful to jot down point-form outline notes before I begin to write, in an attempt to capture the key moments I wish to include.  I recommend starting at the “beginning” and going forward in a linear fashion.  This should help you to remember the sequence of things.  You can alter the sequence in later drafts and incorporate stylistic effects later, if you choose.  Once your outline is done, establish yourself in a comfortable workspace where you can focus on the task at hand, and “let the words pour out.”   

When writing your first draft, don’t worry about grammar, spelling or how things sound, just follow your outline and get the words on paper.   Once your first draft is finished, you can begin to work on shaping it into a stimulating piece of writing.  The first thing you will need to do at this stage is to think of opportunities that work presents to layer in additional, interesting pieces of information.  For instance, if your memoir is about the dangers of backpacking through Europe, think of ways you could integrate a description of the breath-taking landscapes, the delicious food, the fabulous people you met, the blisters on your feet, the romance and the music… In other words, don’t just concentrate on losing your passport, getting mugged, and missing your flight.  

The other thing to work on as you shape this next draft is truth-telling.  While it’s fun to read amusing anecdotes and laugh at ourselves, it’s really important that your words are honest.  There is no point in writing a memoir if you don’t centre it in your truth – your journey.  But while I encourage you to be honest, I also encourage you to be generous.  A written memoir is not the place to record personal and hurtful attacks on other people.  If you must include such events, show the reader what happened without labelling it.  Write us a scene.  For instance, if you detest your former best friend for stealing your husband, don’t call her a slag and a cheating, lying bitch – write about that time you found them off in a corner at a party doing whatever.  Let your reader come to their own conclusions.  

The next step is to utilize writing techniques and fictional elements to make your work vibrant.  The people in your memoir have now become characters in your life story, and as such, need to be developed in the same way that we develop characters in fiction.  Insert short descriptions and characteristics that allow us to see these individuals as three-dimensional.  For instance, the slag who stole your husband might be described colorfully instead of just being labelled.  Barbara went to university to meet a husband and dropped out as soon as she had a ring on her finger.  Despite her shallowness, we had been friends since kindergarten and I was in her wedding party. It was rumored that her husband-the-lawyer had recently moved out. 

When reading over your draft, you will want to check for those moments of emotion that will really hook your readers and create sensations of grief, joy, or awe as they read your words.  Use your words to capture emotional scenes that highlight those key moments in your life.   As I walked by the library, I saw two figures entwined on the couch.  I stopped.  There was something that caught my eye. Slowly, I stepped backwards.  Holding my breath, I willed myself to turn and look more closely.  It was the shirt.  I’d bought that shirt.  Oxford cloth, French blue. 16-32.   

As you continue to work through your drafts, keep asking yourself if you have clarified the heart of the story  —  your key message?  Does the memoir capture your emotional journey and your personal insights and growth?  Have you succeeded in making your unique story something of interest to your readers?  Is this piece of writing an accurate depiction of one part of your rich and fabulous life?  Have you respected your audience by drawing word pictures for them so they can immerse themselves in your story?  

The final stages of your memoir involve the editing process.  You must now work on smoothing your sentences, fine-tuning your word choice, tweaking your descriptions, editing out the boring bits, enhancing the excitement, correcting the spelling and grammar and giving your work the final polish it deserves.