Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How To Write a Memoir

Writing a memoir takes a lot more effort than just recording the events of your life as you recall them happening. Here are just a few tips to get you started.

1. Pick a theme
The difference between an autobiography and a memoir is the focus of the narrative. An autobiography is the telling of someone’s life. A memoir focuses on the theme (or themes) of that life (or episode in the life). Think of what you are writing about. What is your message? What is going on? What is the moral to your tale? Are you writing about your life as a cautionary tale? Was your life changed by one spectacular event? What events in your life led up to that?

Picking a theme helps narrow your focus so that you don’t get distracted with stories that have nothing to do with that theme. For instance, if I was focusing my memoir on how I am the unluckiest person in the world who ended up winning the lottery, I’d choose to share events in my life that illustrate that. Share unlucky episodes, anecdotes, and events that led to me winning the lotto. I would steer away from writing about my first puppy or my first car or my high school graduation…unless those events helped to support the theme I want to get across.

You want to tell the story of your life…but a lot of stuff happens to us in the course of a lifetime…you need to find a way to narrow that down and trim a bit of the excess.

2. Make it conversational
You gotta make it interesting. Don’t drone on and on about your less than stellar childhood – make the reader feel like you are speaking directly to them. Pull them into your narrative, make them feel what you were feeling, experience what you experienced. Put them in the story.

3. Use your senses
This is a good way to draw your readers in. When you write a scene, think about your five senses. If you are describing a trip to the beach, what did you smell? What color was the ocean? What sounds did you hear? Could you taste the salt on your lips? Did the hot sand burn your toes, or did it feel cool and silky?

4. Ground your story in the real world
This seems like a given, but when you are writing about personal experiences, you are (naturally) focused inward. Add details to your narrative that help place what is happening to you in the real world. Things like cultural references (what movies were playing, what songs were popular, etc), modes of transportation (were wood paneled station wagons littering the roads, or was everyone driving a hybrid?), popular clothes fashions (shoulder pads and teased hair or bell bottom jeans and long, shaggy hair?)….these types of details can be woven into your memoir to help set the setting.

5. Be ethical when writing about living people!
This one can be tough, and it is completely up to you if you will use real names or not. But consider how your story may affect those you include. Telling the world that your sister had an affair might be great for your story, but how will it affect your sister? In my opinion, changing the names of the major players in your narrative don’t adversely affect your memoir in the slightest – and using the real identity of someone who would prefer to remain anonymous could hurt you (and them) much more than it could help your book.

Again, this is only my opinion, and this is a subject that can get really touchy, but if your sister’s affair is something you need to include in your book (maybe it is what broke up your own marriage, etc), I don’t consider it dishonest if you change your sister Patty to your cousin Susan – the event is the same, the results are the same, the STORY is the same. Changing a few details to protect someone who has no choice over your freedom of speech is not, in my opinion, dishonest.

Now, saying you were a drug dealer that lived on the streets when in fact you were raised in a million dollar mansion in Beverley Hills is another thing entirely. Changing the facts and events of your life is dishonest…that isn’t a memoir, that is a fiction novel. But changing a name or two…making a sister a cousin…you aren’t changing anything that affects the outcome of your story. Just think long and hard before you include someone that might not want to be included. You have the right to tell your story, but they have the right to keep their lives private if they wish.

6. Above all…KEEP IT HONEST!
As we just discussed, fabricating the facts of your life doesn’t do anyone any good (as some writers have discovered). When you label something a memoir, you are making a sort of promise to your readers that what you are telling them is the truth, that the events that you are sharing really happened. If the events of your life aren’t enough on their own and you need to fabricate experiences to complete the story…then do what you wish, but don’t call it a memoir – call it fiction, because that is what it is.

Will you get hauled into court and called a fraud if you couldn’t remember that it was raining the night you fell overboard into the sea so you said it was a clear night? Probably not. It’s a small, insignificant detail that doesn’t affect the outcome of the experience. Are you being dishonest if you say you fell overboard when you’ve never set foot on a boat in your life? Yeah. You are. Don’t do that. :)

Now, these few tips are just the bare basics of memoir writing. For more detail and specific How To tips, you might want to find a book or two on memoir writing. I recommend Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, to start you out.

Come back next Tuesday for tips on how to find an agent for the masterpiece you are writing :)

1 comment:

Christine Fonseca said...

Can I just say Michelle that you are AWESOME...Your "how-to" posts have been amazing...makes me want to branch out and try some other things. Just wanted to let you know:)