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? cartoon prisoner wanting to move to new cell because walls and floor of this one are full of his written memoir

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 BirdAnne 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!assorted black and white photos of people

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.

The above suggestions are from Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer.woman's hands holding postcard

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)lots of writing - index cards, long sheets, journal

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

12 comments

  1. There are some really good tips here, Karen, thanks for sharing them. You have given me quite a bit to think about – once again. I like the idea of putting a dash wherever you are and then writing “What I meant to say was…” what a great idea! Alas, I won’t be able to follow this tip * 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 favorite songs are just some of the possible sources.* as pretty much all of my life’s memorabilia was gotten rid of long ago. That is okay though…all I need to say is indelibly etched in my brain due to years of traumatic events.
    I have decided to write longhand after all. I was going to use a word program and protect the file with a password but after doing some writing exercises that way I felt too disconnected from what I was writing. So, now I have a brand new hardcover journal with a leather cover (The Logbook by Lee Valley Tools) in which to start writing. As an added bonus I will be abe to take this book anywhere and write with no computer necessary. No power will be required either so I can write sitting outside at the patio table or curled up on the couch and even if a storm knocks out the power I can STILL write. LOL 😉
    Thank you so much for doing this series, Karen. I am finding every post tremendously helpful as I plan and start writing.

    1. You offer an interesting perspective on the value of longhand as opposed to computer writing, Susan. I think it’s great that you tried working on your keyboard and studied your own reactions to that.

      I’m glad the memoir posts continue to be helpful to you.

  2. Great tips, Karen! You’re correct. So many of your points (if not all of them) apply to all kinds of writing.

    Another tip is to keep reading the memoirs (or writing) of others. It is amazing how the writing of others, often brings forth memories for me that had been hidden for quite some time.

    This evening, for example, when reading another blog, the author described her childhood journal “pink and shiny with a princess embossed on the front cover…and a lock and key’. My first thought was, ‘How did she remember that? I had a journal, but there is no way that I can remember what it looked like.” And then, there it was. Homemade with a purple, construction paper cover and strung together with white yarn. No lock and key, but hidden away in a bottom drawer. I can still see it hiding there.
    I hadn’t thought of it in years. Somehow, Jill describing her diary, brought mine instantly back to life!

    1. Hi Donna,
      You’re so right. Reading memoir, especially reading like a writer, is one of the very best things to do. It’s so important, I’m devoting the entire last post of this series to it.

      I love your example of the childhood journal. I still have mine so no need to remember it. Is yours still around?

      1. Hi, Karen – Although I have kept many things from my childhood (and from my son’s childhood) I purposely did not keep that journal. I intentionally decided not to keep some of my earlier writing. It was so personal, that I could not imagine anyone else reading it. (This is a sore point with both my mother and my husband…but I have no regrets!) 😀

  3. Hi Karen, I really am finding these Memoir tips useful. I know that they are well researched and packed full of good information because that is what you do.
    I must tell you what happened last week after I read your posting on looking for a theme. It certainly gave me food for thought. I happened to be looking over our collection of books and found another book you recommended “Old Friend from Far Away” by Natalie Goldberg. I started to reread it beginning at the chapter called ‘Read this Introduction’. I obediently did so and within the first paragraph read the part about the driver of a car impulsively turned her vehicle around and went for a swim in a beautiful pond.
    I thought I have one of those moments! Years ago I went cross country skiing with Walter, my brother-in-law and his wife one winter up near Halliburton. It was one of those beautiful winter days with bright blue skies and crisp trails. Afterwards we went to Sir Sam’s for a nice dinner. We were nicely settled around a table when I decided to visit the washroom. When I got there I found an excellent spa like shower with white fluffy bathrooms and hot, hot water. Upstairs they were wondering where I had gotten too. Downstairs I was happily luxuriating in a stream of steaming water. Ever so slowly I left the shower and went back upstairs to join the group. I will never forget the feeling of doing that!
    So with that memory refreshed in my mind, I grabbed my journal and quickly captured a whole mess of scenarios that I consider to be special in my life. Each page was a new experience where I jotted down details.
    I may have taken a step to actually starting my memoirs!

    1. All right, Fran!! That is just so awesome! What a great memory that was activated by the story from Natalie’s book. And then to have that memory unleash a flood of other ones – that’s apparently how memory works when we are willing to actively look for and be open to our experiences.
      There’s no doubt about it. You’ve taken a step, a huge one. It sounds like memoir writing is firmly ensconced on that list of all of the things you are finally going to have time to do in retirement.

  4. These are great tips, Karen. Some I recognize from reading “Your Life as Story” (which I thought was really good and helpful) and “The Art of Memoir”. I have problems writing in a “show, don’t tell” fashion, but practice should help. During the first draft of my memoir, I just can’t help rereading and editing each chapter a bit, before starting the next one. Free writing might be more fun, but this book is already getting three times as long as it should be. Still, I am putting everything in it I think will enhance the narrative, for now. The real cutting and editing will have to happen in the second or third draft, which is OK.

    1. I have just finished reading your housesitting series of blog posts, Liesbet. Your work ethic is so impressive. I’m not the least bit surprised that you are making great strides on your memoir. You are inspiring!

  5. Karen, I am really enjoying this series on memoir writing. I have to confess that a couple of weeks ago, I ordered four books on writing memoir which have now arrived. I also bought and read Laurel Richardson’s memoir: “Seven Minutes from Home: An America Daughter’s Story.” And I am motivated to once again pick up Mary Carr’s book, which I had been gradually working my way through.

    I have a memoir idea that I have been waiting to work on for 20 years. Besides not having had the time while working, I have been reluctant to start because it is extremely personal and I am a private person. Also, I have 3 other books in process (novels) which I really ought to finish first, rather than starting another new thing. Hmmm.

    Jude

  6. Thanks for your comment, Jude. I’m glad the memoir series is proving useful to you.

    Just think – In a short while you will have the gift of time to be able to choose what you want to write on any given day. Perhaps you’ll end up being one of those people about whom the rest of us exclaim – “Jude is on fire! She has written three novels and a memoir in the _____ (years or months) since she retired.” No pressure, of course. Just lots and lots of wonderful opportunity ahead.

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