What is a memoir — and what is it not?
It’s not an autobiography
It’s not a linear account of your life, beginning with the twinkle in your parents’ eyes, your kid’s first tooth, and every trial and triumph and exotic place you traveled to, or wish you had. In fact, some memoir writing coaches argue that a memoir is not even about you.
If you want to write about your life, starting with events surrounding your birth, you’d write an autobiography—chronological events.
A memoir is about a larger theme that intersects your life—your work with the anti-war movement, for example, or the movement for civil or women’s or LBGTQ or human rights, or with the dying, or saving abandoned animals, or your battle with PTSD, or epilepsy, or hydrofracking. Or maybe you’re an entrepreneur or inventor with an inspiring tale to tell about the backstory of your success.
Henry David Thoreau once said, “I should not speak so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” That’s a witty line, and it makes sense if you’re writing an autobiography—or if you’re Thoreau.
But a memoir is about more than you; It may be painful, or comical; it may be horrifying or profound; and it may be all of those, but it is not a soup-to-nuts autobiography. A memoir generally focuses on a leitmotif, a refrain or theme, that has emerged in the course of your life, something that happened to you, or you caused to happen, that deserves to have the spotlight thrown on it.
A memoir is not about your entire life
“Memoir is not about what you did. Memoir is about what you did with it.”
-Marion Roach Smith
Look for the broad themes. The cases you tried; the business you saved; the patients you helped, or couldn’t; how you bounced back from loss and grief; the work you did with inmates; the hobby that ballooned into a business; overcoming anorexia, or shyness, or poverty. Losing and finding your faith. Getting through your addiction, divorce, war, or illness. Or maybe you overcame a stutter, or stage fright, or raised a special needs child who is thriving now.
Isak Dinesen was a successful Danish author married to an aristocrat, but her celebrated memoir, Out of Africa, covers only the seventeen years she spent living in Kenya trying to grow coffee beans, and falling in love with someone else.
Dave Eggers wrote of the period in his life when, still a college student, he took on the parenting of his eight-year-old brother after both his parents died. The title, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, shows that his sense of humor survived the ordeal.
Rita Gelman’s Tales of a Female Nomad tells of leaving behind a posh existence in LA after a divorce and embarking on adventures that took her from a Mexican village to the rainforest of Borneo.
In his now classic Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell wrote only of his days as a starving writer.
You get the idea.
Carolyn Knapp wrote of her recovery from alcoholism in Drinking: A Love Story; Frank McCourt of his childhood in the Irish slums in Angela’s Ashes; Susannah Calahan in Brain on Fire of her struggle with severe autoimmune illness; Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking of how she coped with the loss within one year of both her husband and daughter; Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran of the underground reading club she led that featured forbidden works like those of Nabokov and Jane Austen, before fleeing Iran in 1997; Ishmael Beah in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier of being recruited at thirteen to be a child soldier in Sierra Leone, and surviving.
How to begin writing your memoir
A memoir, to be worth telling, doesn’t have to be momentous. Getting out from under an addiction can be as great a triumph as climbing Everest; spending a year living in a remote Asian village with no electricity as compelling as the secrets of a Hollywood star, and maybe more uplifting. Neither do you have to be famous, or wealthy, or successful to have a memoir in you. You might be someone who left a boring job in the financial services industry to become a kindergarten teacher for low pay—but rich rewards. And nowadays, you don’t even need an agent or publisher to publish a memoir. You simply have to write one.
Here are 21 tips for how to do just that
How should I begin my memoir?
1. Let a thousand flowers bloom at first. Even if you don’t have a vision of how all your experiences fit together into a book, start writing them up separately, as small discrete vignettes, each with a beginning, middle, and end. Eventually, you’ll have enough “story beads” to select those you want to string together to make your necklace.
Don’t be enslaved to chronology.
2. Just as you might arrange pictures in an album or items in a scrapbook, you can mix and match to create a pleasing flow. Instead of using linear time as a structure, let the major and minor themes of your story be your guide.
Write about moments
3. Include subtle, small moments along with big important ones. If you met the Queen, or played Carnegie Hall, or won an Emmy, it’s unlikely you’ll omit it. But don’t forget to zoom in on smaller details that enrich the telling—the way things looked or smelled, the things people said, the way you felt. Think of your memoir not as a chance to show off your accomplishments but as a way to let people in, to show them what it was like backstage as well as center stage.
The big picture
4. Zoom way out, as well, to give the wider context, the recent or even ancient history of the setting, the natives who once lived there, the famine or hatred or violence that forced them to flee, the geology of the rocks and mountains, the wider culture and milieu that the events you are describing were part of. Think John McPhee.
“Stream of consciousness” writing
5. Start anywhere, if you’re still stumped about where to begin—just start. Dip into the well of your own experience at any point and you will start to bring to the surface memories you didn’t know were there, and that in turn will bring more energy and enthusiasm to the process. You’ll gather steam as you go. But you can’t get into this loop unless you start. In her memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama writes, “The more I wrote my story, the more my voice settled into itself.”
6. Use paintings, photos, drawings, receipts, journals, scans of scrapbook items, not just to jog your memory, but as elements of the memoir itself. The photographer Annie Liebowitz’s memoirs are built around photos she has taken of both friends and world-famous figures.
Timed writing — Writing in spurts
7. Try freewriting if you’re completely blocked and can’t get going at all. Set a timer for ten minutes, pick up a pen or go to your keyboard, start writing—and don’t stop until the bell goes off. Then see what you have at the end. There will be a lot you can’t use, but there will also be phrases and sentences and images worth saving, and building on.
8. Write about what scares you most, something you’re afraid of revealing. Maybe one of your children isn’t your husband’s. Or your great uncle was a Nazi. Writing what’s forbidden or frightening can dislodge the stone that’s damming up the stream of memory—even if you later choose not to keep it in your final draft.
Your memoir doesn’t need to be about you
9. Write someone else’s memoir if that draws you more than writing your own. A brother and sister team created a beautiful memoir and website about their father using his watercolor sketchbooks, which had been sitting in the attic for years. Lovingly interview a dying relative who trusts you. A bedside conversation, a voice recorder, and soon you are the custodian of things that have wanted to be said for years, stories that will disappear forever if they aren’t told now.
Always backup your work
10. Don’t rely just on the recording. Many a recording has been lost, or never happened; many a battery has run out mid-interview. So take notes as well—on your subject’s demeanor, surroundings, dress, expressions, on the things a recording device can’t see. And back up your work to an external source such as a flash drive or Google Docs. You can also attach the work-in-progress (WIP) to emails that you send yourself as you write new content or edit what you’ve written.
Interviewing — Be prepared
11. If you’re interviewing, know exactly what you want to ask, so your subject doesn’t ramble. You don’t want the voluminous reminiscences of someone who repeats the same stories you’ve heard since you were nine. Lead the conversation down the pathways that will elicit the material you need.
Talk to others who are (or were) involved in your story
12. Talk to others, even if it’s your own story you’re writing—childhood friends, people from particular eras of your life—your child’s teachers, your former boss, your ex, your estranged siblings. Get a 360. Expect to find out things you didn’t know.
Be bold and brave
13. Don’t dress things up out of fear you’ll offend someone. Be irreverent, if that’s what you feel. Maybe you really didn’t like your birth mother when you finally met her. If you’re concerned about naming names, be inclusive in your first draft, but then change the names later, or get a second opinion, and if libel is a concern, a lawyer.
14. Organize your daily output. Microsoft Word has a nice outline feature, which can coax an inchoate collection of seemingly random topics into a solid structure. Or use folders, electronic or manila, and drop items into them for future organization.
15. Be vulnerable. Don’t write in order to be admired. Don’t embellish. If the story is worth telling, the truth should be enough, and will have the ring of authenticity. You’re not writing a press release.
Write to someone specific
16. This is a time-honored writing technique—Shakespeare used it for his sonnets. Direct your words to a person who awakens inspiration in you, or someone you love to talk to and who knows how to listen—a secret muse. Even if you never tell them.
Explore your inner self
17. Or, forget your audience entirely, and use your writing time as a form of inner exploration. Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French essayist, once remarked, “I don’t write what I think. I write to find out what I think.”
Avoid in-depth self-analysis
18. Don’t speculate too much about your psychological motives, or anyone else’s. Maybe you became a scientist because your parents were hippies who were always spaced out. That may be interesting as a detail, but not as numerous pages of narcissistic self-analysis. Write what you know, not what you think may be true or what your therapist said. Avoid getting lost in bewildering complexity or brooding introspection.
19. Develop a strong working title to focus your work. Katherine Hepburn called her not-very-well-received autobiography Me. You don’t want to do that. Pick a title that instantly refines your search for material, like The Liar’s Club, for example, Mary Karr’s memoir of an East Texas oil town. Jean Paul Sartre called his memoir of a childhood soaked in books and learning The Words. Fran Drescher called her memoir Cancer Schmancer. The actor Orson Bean wrote about his life-changing encounter with Wilhelm Reich in Me and the Orgone. A strong title can pull your writing toward a focused result, even if you later find one you like better.
Your memoir should hook the reader
20. Create dramatic tension, even if your readers are friends and family. Cut away from one narrative to another, until there are several subplots the reader is tracking. This is a great way to avoid the the pitfall of being overly linear. Instead of A then B then C then D, try ACBDCA.
Pick a virtue or quality
21. Pick a virtue or quality, and let your memoir be an illustration of how it has played out in your life: generosity, courage, success and failure, survival, love, faith, adventure, humor, devotion, service, persistence, giving and receiving, abundance, belief, discipline, focus, mastery, forgiveness, flexibility, adversity, learning to say no, learning to say yes, and learning when you’ve said enough.
Good luck, and enjoy the process.
E.M. LEVY has received writing, editing, and publishing awards. He offers developmental editing and copyediting for religion, biography, public affairs, spiritual, memoir, and alternative medicine books.