What’s Your Story? Tips on Memoir Writing

Everyone has a story to tell. A favorite childhood memory, a screw-up on a first job, an amazing trip, a memorable family gathering, a cherished pet.

Recently, I had the privilege of holding a book launch party for Summer Squall for some 50 women who belong to book clubs where I live. In addition to telling the backstory of my novel (which I will do in a later post), I shared tips on memoir writing, using Quicksand: A Cautionary Love Story as an example. Here are the points I made in case you too want to pen your story. If you would like to watch my presentation, click here.

  1. Know the genre.
    Memoir and autobiography are often used interchangeably, yet incorrectly. The difference is that memoir writing is not simply a chronology of your life but rather a sub-genre. A memoir focuses on a specific event at a specific time, while an autobiography spans the entire life of a person including such details as childhood, family history, education and profession.
  2. Read memoirs – lots of memoirs.
    At one time, celebrities were the only people who wrote memoirs, but a lot has changed. Reading memoirs is a great way to familiarize yourself with the rhythm of this type story and to grow comfortable with the first-person pronoun.
    Here’s a list of some of my favorites.
    – The Glass Castle – Jenette Walls
    – Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt
    – The Liar’s Club – Mary Karr
    – Rocket Boys – Homer Hickam
    – Marley & Me – John Grogan
    – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
    For the New York Times list of the 50 best memoirs of the past 50 years, click here.
  3. Collect your primary source materials.
    Because the events of my story occurred long before email and texting, I had a plethora of materials – letters, calendars, cards, photos, trinkets, music. So collect anything and everything that can assist you in your deep dive back into your past.
  4. Narrow the focus of your story.
    While Quicksand covers ten years of my life, your memoir might be limited to just one day. In many ways, a limited time frame can improve the impact of your story. Think like a cook: a sauce reduction thickens and strengthens the flavors of the sauce. Same is true in writing.
  5. Focus on 3 primary elements: the event(s), emotion(s), the impact.
    When you choose an event for your memoir, think about how the event affected you and what you learned from it. As you identify the feelings you experienced, remember every writers’ mantra: “Show, don’t tell.” In other words, show yourself in actions that demonstrate the emotion. Body language is always a good place to start.
  6. Break down your story into scenes and get to writing!
    Don’t worry over the perfect beginning to your story. Simply choose a starting point and begin. In most cases, start with some type of conflict. You can always interweave a backstory into the narrative later. While John Updike’s short story “A&P” isn’t a memoir, it reads like one and illustrates just how short an event can be, plus it illustrates the power of a great first sentence: “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits!”
    Here’s a link to the story.
  7. Find your voice
    Without a doubt, this is hardest element of memoir writing – the relationship between the author (you) and the character (you again). I was in tears trying to find just the right voice and didn’t discover it until some five chapters into my narrative. Once I did, I rewrote the beginning, using a prologue to set up the memoir. For the remainder of the chapters, I used a conversational voice, envisioning my audience sitting in the room nodding and listening.
  8. Study the craft of writing.
    I attended numerous workshops and seminars offered through universities and local writing groups. If that isn’t an option for you, there are numerous books available through Amazon. One of my favorites is Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham. I’m also fond of books by K.M Weiland and am using her workbook Outlining Your Novel as I begin my third book. In writing Quicksand, I connected with Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus with my Sister, at a writing convention. She became my writing coach.
  9. Expect to make multiple drafts.
    I hate to tell you, but much of what you write will land in the trash bin. That’s part of the process. Don’t even name your memoir at this point. Simply call it “Draft 1” and get going. With both of my books, I went through four drafts. Yes, that took some time, but the results were worth it.
  10. Search outBeta” Readers.
    You want honest and helpful feedback on your writing, but this does not necessarily come from friends and relatives. As you begin your writing journey, you’ll meet others along the way. Exchange drafts with them. One of my readers had served time for a Ponzi scheme, which helped me greatly with scenes involving courtroom protocol. Join online writing groups. It’s another great way to get beta readers. Prepare specific questions for them to address. This helps guide their reading.

Yes, writing is a daunting. But if you have a story within you, then write it. You will be so proud of the results. I know I was.

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