I’ve been contracted to do manuscript assessments on quite a few memoirs lately, so it’s probably timely for me to clear up any confusion over what a memoir actually is and how to create a good one.
We can all look back over photographs of ourselves and see how we’ve changed as a person, but how do we bring those changes to life in an engaging and compelling way for readers? A good memoir is so much more than an extended CV, and for that reason I’d like offer advice on how to create a really memorable memoir! First let’s start with:
Definition: “A memoir reads more like a novel than an autobiography. While an autobiography often covers a long time period and provides many details, a memoir deals with events related to a specific theme. Examples of topics for memoirs may include recovering from an eating disorder, dealing with an abusive spouse, or what it’s like to live with a chronic illness.” Diana Harris
Difference between a memoir and an autobiography: “A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” Gore Vidal
Purpose of a memoir: To make meaning of life experience and in the process, inform and entertain a reader.
Format of a memoir: Usually told in first person by a narrator who writes with complexity and layered thought – not just telling the events along with the accompanying emotion, but analysing them in retrospect.
Okay! Now that we’ve got the academic stuff out of the way, I’d like to put on my writing teacher hat and pretend you’re at one of my workshops. These are some of the things I’d share with you as being important in the development and drafting of a good memoir:
- Facts are not as important as the emotional truth of the scene and how you felt about it.
- Memoirs are written less formally than an autobiography, conveying the “voice” of the author, whether that’s humorous, eloquent or blunt.
- They are usually always written by the subject of the memoir.
- They encompass only a portion of your life – focusing on the theme of the memoir.
Ways to generate ideas for your memoir
- Go through your photo albums and let them trigger memories. Write notes of interesting events and what theme they might come under: romance, career, mental health, sexuality, etc
- Read your diaries or journals if you kept them. Visit family or old friends and get them reminiscing.
- Go to a school reunion.
- Read your work CV and let that trigger memories of what was happening around your career.
- Go through your mother’s cookbook if it’s still available or write a list of foods you ate back then. That will trigger memories.
- Write a list called “Seasons” where you write every memory you have for each of the four seasons – sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures.
- Make a list of ‘family stories’ that were handed down (struggling to find food during the depression for example)
Planning your Memoir Structure
- The beginning should grab the reader’s attention.
- The middle of a memoir shares important actions and details about the experience.
- The end comes after the main action and needs to show what was learned
- There should be enough information to make the reader care about the characters who feel real, but not so much that they’re bogged down with backstory or boring everyday details of meals, dressing, showering etc.
- All scenes in the memoir should pertain to the theme.
- Most authors will write in chronological order to build characterisation, momentum and tension, but examples of other plot structures are: writing a schizophrenia memoir in short sections that jump back and forth in time, fragmenting the story to simulate the challenge of comprehending life when you have a mental illness, or writing an amnesia memoir backwards to the event that caused the amnesia.
Writing your memoir in draft
- Show don’t tell. Use descriptive words and phrases, incorporating all the senses to make the reader feel like they were present when the action took place.
- Include dialogue that shows feeling. In this case, less often means more. Include only the most important dialogue that has the most impact.
- Feature a beginning that catches the reader’s attention. Hook your readers immediately. A few ideas include starting in the middle of the action, having the characters talk, beginning with a surprising statement or fact or giving some important background information.
- Add sensory details. These are words or descriptions that appeal to one of your senses. Sensory details provide a complete look at the story and make your memoir more interesting.
- Share thoughts and feelings. This allows readers to understand how the experience affected you, and what you were going through. Thoughts and feelings help build a connection to the narrator.
- Reveal why the event was important. Writers share what they learned from this experience, building a connection with the audience. Writers want to evoke an emotional response from the reader.
As a writing teacher, there is naturally more I can say on the subject, and I’m happy to share that as part of my mentoring service (via Skype or phone) helping writers who need more intensive advice constructing or editing their memoir. I also offer a manuscript assessment service for memoir and most fiction genres, and this is a great way to find out what’s working and what could be improved in the manuscript you’ve already completed.
So whether your memoir is as intimate as a family heirloom or as public as a bestseller that inspires thousands, I hope I’ve helped you along the way in making it as engaging and memorable as it can be!