How to Write a Memoir: 7 Helpful Tips
So you are finally sitting down, pen or keyboard close at hand, and you are going to start writing your memoir. You are convinced that there are more benefits than liabilities to writing memoir, and you know how you are going to handle your fear of alienating everyone you have ever loved. Or at least you aren’t going to worry about offending people until after you’ve got a completed first draft. You’ve figured out your theme and you know it’s a good one because you’ve got a great character arc showing how you have changed in relation to that theme. Good for you! There’s nothing left to do but write. Gulp. There’s nothing left to do but write. But how to write a memoir? What do you actually do?
1. Show Up
You’ve already taken the biggest step by making the decision to write, and sitting down to do it. Now do that over and over again. Unfortunately, unless you are incarcerated, that is much easier said than done.
Some earlier posts that will help you keep your commitment include: Put the 80/20 Rule to Work for You; 35 Ways to Strengthen Your Willpower and Self-Control; The Myth of the 21 Day Habit, and How to Craft Your Ideal Day…and Live It.
Creating a sense of urgency can also be helpful. It’s not that you should be anticipating your imminent demise. That could have a decidedly negative effect on your productivity. But imagining a voice urging, “Tell me–we won’t be here forever” might do the trick.
Or, in a considerably more positive vein, anticipate your success. There’s a very simple equation that all writers need to know: more writing = better writing. Memoirist Marion Roach Smith offers this reassurance:
“If you’re willing to do the work it takes–the rewrites, editing, more rewrites, more editing–then you’ll likely succeed, and no one will consider it a waste of time to read your stuff.” (p.97)
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. There’s nothing to rewrite or to edit until you have written your first draft.
2. Write a Terrible First Draft
When I wrote books for teachers and principals, the first drafts I sent to my editor were actually pretty good. That’s because my writing usually involves a lot of rewriting on the spot. It’s also because a lot of my writing is nonfiction. Memoir, while still nonfiction, is very different. When writing your first draft, please don’t stop to rewrite, research, or edit. Accept that huge chunks of your writing will be awful, and keep going. In beloved writing text Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott explains why:
“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later….If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational grown-up means.”
A couple more first draft suggestions:
Ernest Hemingway kept himself going by writing the first line of the next paragraph before he quit work each day.
And memoirist Darin Strauss wrote the first draft of his memoir in third person, not first. He said he found it easier to be tough on himself that way. Since his memoir begins, “Half my life ago, I killed a girl,” I’m guessing that was a difficult memoir to write and am inclined to take his advice!
3. Do Your Research
Research is vitally important for reasons we’ll discuss more fully in next week’s “Truth in Memoir” post. Just as important, if you’re someone who loves to research as much as I do, you should delay researching until after you’ve finished your first draft. Otherwise, research can just become a wonderful way to procrastinate and avoid the actual writing.
When you are ready to research, there are so many ways to do it that are far more interesting than looking stuff up on Google. Consider:
- movies or magazines of the period for details about the times
- drawing a floor plan of where you used to live or work, including every bit of furniture and art that you can remember
- the memory that is stored in your body. For example, if you worked in an icecream parlour as a teenager, stand up from your desk, bend over, stretch your arms down and remember yourself scooping the hard icecream from the bottom of the cardboard container.
- watching an actor like Meryl Streep as she transitions from one emotion to another. What simple gestures is she using? Write them down.
Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir suggests that you could also:
- do an archaeological dig through your life’s memorabilia. Paintings, postcards, passports, report cards, awards, certificates, recipes, fabric, letters to and from you, poems, journal entries, and words to your favourite songs are just some of the possible sources.
- interview yourself. For example, if you are trying to remember a family dinner at age ten: What is the table made of? Is there a tablecloth? What are the chairs made of? Is there a window? Any pictures on the wall? What are you wearing? Who sits on your left? Is food passed on plates, in bowls, or are you served? What colour are the plates? Who will wash them? Is someone in control, dominant? Is there laughter? What funny thing did someone say or do? Are there undercurrents? Anger? What are you eating? What does it taste like?
4. Show, Don’t Tell
Those three little words are the injunction of every writing teacher in the history of time. I’m really, really bad at writing descriptively, but am heartened by memoirist Mary Karr’s conviction that “Anybody with crisp recall can get half decent at describing stuff with practice.” (p.75) Here are some ways to practice:
- Focus on sensory details–sound, smell, taste, touch, sight. Think of these details as physical evidence for the ideas you are trying to convey.
- Give information in the form you received it. Mary Karr says, “I never called my parents alcoholics; I showed myself pouring vodka down the sink.” (p.120)
- When you are at the editing stage, circle every ‘I’ and rewrite at least two-thirds of those sentences to begin with action. Instead of saying, “I ran over the good cat with whom I had come to live,” edit it to read, “Backing out of the driveway….” (Marion Roach Smith)
In my opinion, there’s no one better equipped than Natalie Goldberg to teach us how to write a memoir so that we show rather than tell. She writes like a poet and, in fact, wanted to be a poet before she learned that other kinds of writing would give her a better chance at financial solvency. Suggestions from Old Friend From Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir include:
- Be specific. Nothing vague. Write a memory of your mother, aunt or grandmother. If it’s an aunt, say her name. Begin with “I remember….”
Example: “I remember my mother bit the left corner of her lip when she was nervous. She wore red Revlon lipstick and when she ate Oreos the crumbs stuck to the lipstick. I always recall her lips first. She had a wide mouth with big teeth and her smile was all I longed for as a child.” (p.6)
- If your mind is flitting all over, write what is in front of your face. Begin with the most ordinary: beige carpet, wastebasket, four legs of a wood chair and a white wall. If something not in front of you comes to mind, jot it down: An almond butter sandwich I once ate on a hike. Back to the room: Black pen on the floor, a folder…. Go ahead. Let the almond butter come back: We were in Yellowstone. September. I was no longer young but I was eating that gooey stuff. What is in front of you anchors your mind so when you go off into memory, there is weight. You don’t just fly around and never land. (p.35)
5. Write in Your Own Voice
This piece of writing advice may seem a bit unnecessary. After all, whose voice are you going to write in if not your own? However, it’s important to pay attention to voice because if your voice doesn’t ring true, your memoir will be both unbelievable and boring.
The best way to think of voice in memoir is to heed Natalie Goldberg’s words. “Essentially what you want is for your writing to become transparent. That your language and expression are not one iota off from who you are.” (p.52)
Tristine Rainer suggests that you will have the best success with authorial voice if you use the diction you speak. She also recommends that you “use your present self as narrator looking back at your past self as protagonist….”(p.129)
I find that voice develops when you write a lot, and when you are willing to lose some control, to write as if no one will ever see your words. Memoirist James McBride said it well when he wrote, “Know that the writing will lead you into places you can’t imagine you’ll go. In my experience, writing comes from a place beneath intellectual consciousness. The only way to get to that place is by writing. Trust the magic of that process.” (p.164)
6. Try Something Different
When your writing, first draft or otherwise, isn’t working, or even when it is, try something different. Doing so can help you to lose control, write in your own voice, show rather than tell, and finish that terrible first draft. Try any of the following:
- Write an event as a fairy tale–“Once upon a time there was a little girl who….” Tristine Rainer says that you can’t help but write a fairy tale so that it has all of the components of a good story, including a character arc.
- Write longhand letters to your complicated characters. Mary Karr guarantees that this will teach you more about voice than a year of classes. Marion Roach Smith goes a step further by suggesting that you write everything as if it were a letter home. She says you’ll write more about ideas and how you feel; that you will “put the bold, brash bragging aside, because these guys knew you when, and they can still kick your emotional ass if you get out of line.” (pp.95-96)
- Choose a different place to start. For example, if you are working up to the death of a parent and that’s feeling flat, begin with the death.
- Whenever you are feeling flat or muddled, take it as a sign that you aren’t saying anything meaningful. Put a dash wherever you are, write “What I really want to say is…” and keep going. (Natalie Goldberg, p.152)
- Bring weather into your work. Natalie Goldberg encourages this because weather “is a real and affecting thing in human life.” (p.127)
- Edmund White recommends, “Sit in a café by yourself and listen to the people in the next booth. You’re clear about what’s going on. You know they’re fighting about sex, or fidelity, or money. You don’t know who Martha is, but you get it. Apply that to your writing.” (p.254)
- Try some writing prompts. Natalie Goldberg has dozens of them in Writing Down the Bones and Old Friend From Far Away. Here are three of my favourites. Each time, write for ten minutes without stopping: When was the first time you were afraid? Where is home for you? What do you no longer have?
- Marlene Schiwy suggests working with photos of yourself as prompts. Choose photos of yourself at various early ages. They should be photos that elicit a memory or an emotion. Answer questions such as: What is that little girl experiencing? What kind of world does she inhabit? Who are her friends? What are her needs?
7. Read Your Writing Aloud
Reading your writing aloud is one of the best ways I know to write a memoir or any other genre. I have always used reading aloud to hear if a sentence sounds clunky or if it seems authentic to my natural voice. Natalie Goldberg gives another stellar rationale for reading aloud. In Old Friend From Far Away she writes,
“When we write, often we don’t know what we said, because as we move the hand across the page, we are paying attention to monkey mind, that critic always at our ear that rants on how we shouldn’t write, and who do we think we are? This voice is so loud that when we stop writing, we have no way to gain access to what we have actually written. All we have heard is the criticism. We feel like shit. This tends to build and fester. Reading aloud releases the tension, allows you to connect with what you actually wrote. No good or bad. You can go on.” (p. 74)
I do all of my reading aloud to myself. If you decide you want to read aloud to someone else, be careful! To avoid judgments that can derail your work, ask your listener to recall, not critique. All they’re allowed to do is repeat back to you words and phrases that they remember. That will give you feedback you can use by telling you where your writing is especially strong.
How to Write a Memoir
I have limited my memoir writing tips to seven. Other writers would tell you that there are nineteen tips or thirty-two or twelve. The fact is, no one can give you a foolproof, failsafe template. Memoir writing, like all writing, is as unique as the writer. Nevertheless, while there’s no template, there are a few guarantees. Memoir writing, like all writing, improves with the doing. It improves when you pretend that it will never see the light of day and you allow yourself to write wild. And it improves when you do the right things at the right time, like researching after you have a draft and editing after the second or third draft.
#4 – How to Write a Memoir: 7 Helpful Tips
Next week we’ll talk about truth in memoir, also known as “how to figure out if you should be writing a novel, not a memoir.” The week after, we will end this six-part memoir series with what should really be tip #8 in this post –Reading Memoir Like a Writer. I will briefly review some of my favourite memoirs, highlighting some of the writing decisions their authors have made that you might wish to borrow for your own writing.