Today’s post is written by Heather Siegel.
At a book-reading not too long ago, an aspiring memoirist asked what my top tips were for writing a memoir. Because I was pressed for time, my impulse was to impart inspiring, motivational words, but also quick, practical knowledge. Later, I reflected that these tips I’d shared were exactly what I wish someone had told me when I began my own journey as a memoirist.
While I do not believe there is a one-size-fits all approach for every memoir, I do think keeping the following ideas in mind can help you begin to approach and shape your material in a way that will engage the distracted, indifferent reader.
1. Read the best of the best.
If it’s true you are what you read, then why not read at the top of the genre—the best of the best. Read the prize-winning literary versions of the kind of memoir you are hoping to create. Is yours a coming-of-age, a medical-journey, a humorous collection of vignettes, a travelogue, a misery memoir? Figure out what kind of memoir yours wants to be, and read the best of those—all of them—from classic to contemporary.
I wouldn’t worry about plagiarism. You’re writing a memoir, not a research paper, and as such, you can’t, and wouldn’t want to, tell someone else’s story as your own. You can, however, absorb important elements from others to inform the writing of yours. Structure is a biggie. Narrative arc, another. Study how others create tension, and dramatize scenes. Study what these writers put into their stories—and what they leave out. Do some of them make you envious? Good. Figure out why. Is it their use of dialogue? Their brilliant overarching prologue that summarizes the trajectory of their story? The use of metaphor? Their handling of theme? Learn from them. Like any other apprenticeship, learning to write creative nonfiction requires putting in the time to study how the successful people before you have done it.
2. Calibrate your ego.
Believe that you can tell your story, and that your story needs to be told. A student once said to me, “I mean, who am I to tell this story?” I asked, who was she not to? It was her story, after all. I also reminded her that she had taken the first step and showed up to a workshop, which meant she possessed what every writer needs: enough of an ego to begin. The trick was to figure out ways to strengthen that ego in order to combat imposter syndrome. One way is to set aside time to write, and to protect that time. Another is to bluff confidence by removing words like “I believe,” and “I think,” and replacing them with more authoritative language. Still another is to keep showing up to some kind of community, where you are expected to submit work.
Feeling ready and pumped up? Great. Now, you remind yourself that unless you are a celebrity, no one is automatically interested in you or your story. This doesn’t mean that you can’t make them care, but it does mean that you will have to work that much harder to create a sympathetic character, and artfully shape and organize your story so that it matters to strangers.
3. Begin by telling your story orally.
Identifying your story—figuring out the slice of life, series of events, the question that needs answering, or the moment that changed everything and how—is key to starting a memoir. A good pre-writing idea is to connect with a good friend and “tell” them your story. Besides that we are all natural storytellers, with that friend in front of you, you will have no choice but to begin to shape your story in order to engage them.
You may find yourself also employing the natural elements of storytelling to heighten or dramatize certain moments, which can be a cue to their importance. You may find yourself trying to cross from the personal to the more universal in what you are saying, which can help you identify theme. You may find some signature expressions you use, which can help you develop your voice and character. At the least, you may find yourself struggling to make sense of what you are saying, which will be your key to making this story mean something to someone else.
Try your story out on several friends. Then several more. The more you tell it, the sharper all of these elements will become.
4. Write your back cover description using the 5 Ws.
I know a lot of instructors suggest for writers to just start writing and to see what happens, or to choose ten anecdotes and see if they add up to something. This can all be useful in the beginning stages. This can also lead to an unwieldy number of pages that add to nothing. As a supplement to oral-storytelling, I suggest writing a one paragraph description of your story—what can even be thought of as your future back cover description.
To do this, answer the Ws: The When, Where, Who, What, and Why of your story. When and where does this story take place? Who is this story about? (characterization). What does this person want? (narrative drive). Why can’t they have it? (obstacles and tension). Other questions to ask yourself are: what’s at stake if this person doesn’t get what they want? Finally, you can ask yourself these important questions: Why does this story matter to me—and why should it matter to anyone else? (theme). It may take you a while to come up with these answers, but they are worth the time. Not only can these questions help you see your story objectively, they can help you focus and see your story shape more clearly.
5. Reflect on your narrative.
Memoir is about the sense you make of your experiences just as much as it is about the experiences you are writing about. It’s about the questions that come up for you and the answers you seek. The more you reflect, the more readers will be able to bring their own reflections in, which will keep them interested. What was your reaction to this, and why? And how does this detail or piece of dialogue or information inform the overall story and, hopefully, lead us to the ultimate reflection: the moment of transformation? Ask yourself when and how were you changed, and why. What is the lesson or takeaway of your story? Why is this lesson or takeaway important to document?
6. Keep a double perspective.
There is only one person writing your memoir, but at all times, there are really two of you in the story—the person who lives through the events, and the writer now telling of the events and making sense of them. While this may sound tricky, this double perspective, and fleshing out of two characters at once, can be achieved by continuing to ask yourself these questions: What did I think then? And what do I think now?
You can also ask yourself: Who was I then? And who am I now?
7. Identify and begin with the inciting incident.
Why should fiction writers have all the fun, anyway? Capture your readers’ attention with a flashback or a flash forward—the event that changed everything, the question that needs answering, the problem that needs solving, the moment you knew fill-in the-blank; then pull back, or reset, and continue chronologically, or by geography, or by names of lovers, or by outfits worn, or by pets outlived . . . or whatever organizing principle you choose.
8. Go wider with meaning.
Connect your story to larger meaning. If you are writing a medical memoir, then of course, you will need to add research. But what about a coming-of-age story? Or a relationship story? One idea is to consider the setting, and think about how it contributed to your character’s development or journey. Another is to explore your themes. Are you writing about obsession, grief, inspiration, depression, revenge, unrequited love? Ruminate on your theme. Read about your theme in other disciplines, like philosophy, science, religion, or history. See if you can bring these outside perspectives into your story. You’d be surprised as you are writing what connections can be made. In my forthcoming memoir, I write about love and finding “the one,” an idea I connected to a Klimt print of The Kiss I had purchased at the time of the events I write about. This somehow sparked my thinking about how other works in art, literature, and film contributed to my mindset at the time. Bringing outside information into memoir can make for a richer reading experience. It can also create balance, letting the reader experience going inward, and outward. Lastly, thinking wider about your theme can help you identify that all-important hook editors are always looking for.
Wishing you luck on your writing journey!