Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Often, the most compelling and permanent method to capture the powerful emotions and impact of a specific life event is through memoir.
Writing memoir is a highly personal and “self” orientated experience. While you do not need to be an established, published or experienced writer to begin writing your memoir, if you are writing to publish, it’s easy to lose sight of the purpose of writing, and to forget that you are – above all – writing for a specific audience and not just yourself.
Let’s have a look at what you might want to avoid when writing your memoir in order to make it an enjoyable experience for both yourself when writing, and your audience when reading.
1. A therapeutic experience vs. therapy
You may be compelled to write memoir as a way to piece together an experience that has been extra-ordinary. The memoir then, serves as an outlet to gather your thoughts lucidly and coherently. This is beneficial: by retrospectively and objectively re-examining an event, we can begin to understand and come to terms with life altering changes. For the writer, this is a therapeutic experience.
Do not confuse this with therapy. If you intend to publish to an audience besides yourself and close family/friends, then it is vital you keep in mind that you are writing for this select audience.
This audience does not wish to read long-winded journal-esque pieces which are in danger of sounding self-indulgent. You must be hyperaware that you are not just writing for yourself, but you are primarily writing for an audience who has invested in your publication.
And what is this audience looking for?
People who read memoirs wish to delve into something vivid and evocative; a text profound enough to enlighten them on experiences which they may not have undergone. They seek a moral or a message as they glimpse into a snippet of someone’s life.
So how can you avoid falling into the therapy trap? Well …
2. Don’t forget you are writing memoir
One important aspect that must be at the forefront of your mind is that you are not writing your autobiography.
What you are writing about is a specific snippet, a specific turning point in your life, a specific memory which has affected you profoundly. After all this is the single event that you deemed engaging enough to share with the world. Not something you would easily forget, right?
With this in mind, it’s important for you to elucidate the overarching “theme” of your memoir before you begin writing. So, for example, let’s say your memoir is inspired by overcoming a potentially life threatening illness, and your story is one of resilience when the odds were against you.
This is the “theme” of your memoir, the message you are trying to put across – one of hope, triumph and courage. These are the sentiments you wish for your reader to be left with, months after they put your memoir down. So, these sentiments should be so vivid that your reader identifies with them and the complexities these emotions bring.
This doesn’t need to be difficult. Follow this simple rule:
3. Less detail = more purpose = more meaning
But, what does this mean?
The answer: avoid meaning-less details which have no relation to your overarching theme.
If your memoir is about overcoming illness then would, for example, recounting an argument you had with your best friend about her lack of punctuality be entirely relevant to the situation you are conveying?
Of course, this event might be important and meaningful to you, but it wouldn’t be important to your reader who is reading your memoir to gain insight into your experiences with an illness and the consequences of this.
What this means, then, is that you will have to skip forward months, or even years in your written memoir in order to deliver only the aspects which are conducive to the wider message you are trying to convey to your readers.
But that’s okay, because my next tip is to …
4. Avoid chronology
Memoirs are distinct as they underplay chronological dates and times which novels, short stories and even autobiographies rely so heavily on.
Of course, our lives are not comprised of solitary, isolated bundles of experience. Rather, the repercussions of our life choices and events all form threads which bind together to create experience. The single contained nugget of your life you are writing about will of course have implications on other aspects of your life too.
It’s important to bear in mind that the actual turning points and the implications of the turning points are two separate entities. It is understanding the turning points (i.e. the events which have inspired the memoir) which are significant to the story and require deep unpicking to succinctly convey their emotional significance.
So, how does one avoid chronology in memoir writing? The answer is simple.
When you begin writing your memoir, think about the events which are most incongruent and distinct in your memory in relation to your overarching theme. Make these events your focus, and don’t be too concerned with the time scale or the time frame in which they happened.
In How to Write a Memoir, Zinsser provides some good advice:
…think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished product, the grand edifice you have vowed to construct.
5. Don’t lie!
Of course, from the tips above, being honest throughout your memoir isn’t strictly true. In some respects, writing memoir requires the writer to lie by omission. This just means that you omit details which, while true, are disengaging and add nothing to the overarching theme.
However, sometimes, when we venture back into past memories, it’s easy to put on those proverbial rose-tinted specs. Even easier, is ignoring our own flaws and faults when re-examining our pasts.
By doing so, however, the memoir is at risk of sounding extremely biased and in some cases self-pitying. Don’t forget that you are writing for readers who have their own imperfections too, and they bring these with them when they read your memoir. If you present your weaknesses and shortcomings together with your strengths and triumphs, then, as the narrator, your “voice” is all the more human and, consequently, all the more relatable and engaging.
6. Don’t lose your voice
So far, I’ve stressed that keeping your audience in mind is important when writing memoir. What is equally important is not forgetting your own “voice”; not forgetting the “I”. It is the “I” in the memoir that should come alive and jump from the page. After all, as Gore Vidal observed when writing his own memoir, Palimpsest, ultimately “a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life”.
A great example of this is Bill Bryson and his travel memoirs. Anybody who has read Bryson’s travelogues is aware of his unique style; he successfully amalgamates travel writing, narrative non-fiction and humor into one hilarious bundle.
Without meeting Bryson, we know through reading his travel memoirs that his views of the world – though poignantly reflective – are underscored by a wry acerbity and light-hearted disdain. We find ourselves nodding in agreement at Bryson’s observations almost as though he is personally letting us in to a secret. This then becomes Bryson’s “voice” and separates him from a travel writer who simply recounts his adventures, yet keeps an emotional distance from his memories.
Remember, it’s your story. Powerful narrators in memoirs are those who “act”, who are neck deep in the action – in the memory – and can convey precisely how and what they think and feel at this precise moment in time, and how this situation has shaped their lives and themselves today.
If you keep your voice, and personalize your story, then your readers will no doubt follow you on the journey you take them through your memoir.
What do you believe makes a great memoir? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.