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Recently, I confessed to writing up, over thirty years ago, some short vignettes about my life and getting a less-than-enthusiastic response from a friend to whom I showed it. That scared me away from writing about my life.
But memoir-writing is hot nowadays, not only because people want to become famous and/or make lots of money, but because they want to have some piece of immortality, for family and friends or just for the universe in general.
I think memoir-writing is a fantastic way to get perspective on your life: to see the many connections between events, to understand what has shaped you both for the good and for the bad, and to put to bed old grudges and disappointments.
What is memoir?
Simply put, a memoir is a set of vignettes about your life, with a major theme or angle.
It is NOT autobiography, which is more of a blow-by-blow of your life.
It is very important to distinguish between the two, as this will affect how you tackle your project. In fact, understanding memoir is so important that I’m going to repeat myself:
Memoir is NOT autobiography
Goals of memoir-writing
- To tell a story. Whether or not you choose to write for an audience or just for yourself – and whatever your genre or style – remember: Your task is to tell an interesting story. To quote this article from the BookBaby blog: “Leave out inconsequential events and keep in mind that you’re building a story, not just making a list in the order things happened.”
- To tell the truth. Since your goal is to tell the truth, remember that the truth is “funny and sick and therefore true….We write to expose the unexposed….What gets exposed is not people’s baseness but their humanity” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, pp. 188, 198, 200).
While you don’t have to go right out and tell your readers in black and white what your goal is in this memoir, you must have it personally in mind before you write.
Questions to ask yourself before you start
- Will this memoir be just for myself? For a general readership? For family and close friends? For just my family? Will it be for my nuclear family only, or for the greater family?
- Will those reading it be adults? Youngsters? A specific, niched audience? This will impact the way you write (tone), the order of the chapters, your angle (childhood, career, marriage, etc.), the words you choose – everything.
- Is my goal to publish, to give my family a chronicle of my life, or to understand my life and my choices? Or will this memoir be an act of healing for me?
- Am I writing this memoir to get revenge on people, or to settle old scores (not recommended)?
- If I allow others to read it, will I be able to stand up to their criticism and anger? (If not, consider writing only for yourself.)
No matter whom you are writing for – even yourself – you must not write looking over your shoulder, wondering what your audience will think and/or trying to write flowy prose with an eye to writing the next bestseller.
Don’t write a memoir if…
- You think you’re a special snowflake whose story everyone wants to read. Anne Lamott tells how she submitted a story to a magazine, only to have the editor write her this rejection letter: “You have made the mistake of thinking that everything that has happened to you is interesting” (page 193).
By the time she sat down to write a book about her father’s final illness, she had learned her lesson:
First I wrote down everything that happened to us, and then I took out the parts that felt self-indulgent. (p. 193)
- You can’t stand to cut and edit. Unless you’re writing only for yourself, you’ll need to do both of these – just as you’d do with a “real” book. One of my subscribers, Fred R., whom you’ll hear more about in my next blog, cut the first half of his memoir from 290,000 words, “with detail galore, strewed with countless irrelevancies and wanderings-off,” to 80,000 words.
Writing for yourself
Writing a completely private memoir is the easiest, as you don’t have to edit excessively and you don’t have to worry about anyone being offended. It’s therapeutic, too. Force yourself to face the bad with the good; get it all onto the page. It’s illuminating to see the continuum of your life in black and white. Pieces of the puzzle will come together, and your comprehension of events will be enhanced.
To quote William Zinsser:
Your biggest stories will often have less to do with their subject than with their significance – not what you did in a certain situation, but how that situation affected you and shaped the person you became.” (On Writing Well, p. 293)
Zinsser continues: “You write your remembered truth, not someone else’s.” Your book will be yours; not your sister’s, your mother’s, your spouse’s, or your children’s.
Writing for family
Writing for family is a whole different kettle of fish. Here are four reasons why.
You’ll have to decide just how much you’re willing to reveal about yourself – but whatever you decide, you must tell the truth.
They’ll be interested in family history as well as in you. Try to give as much information about your forebears as possible. Zinsser suggests, “When you write your family history, be a recording angel and record everything your descendants might want to know” (On Writing Well, p. 286).
While I agree that if you’re writing for your family you will have to give cold, hard facts, remember that everyone loves a story. This is as true in nonfiction as it is in fiction. Your family will especially want to read anecdotes from your life that will give them a comprehensive and interesting picture of you.
You don’t have to be as “author-y” as you’d need to be if you were writing with an eye to publish – but why not give it your best effort anyway?
It might be more difficult to write just for family than for the public, as you won’t be able to escape into anonymity. You might pull a few noses out of joint, and you yourself might be embarrassed.
Nevertheless, get the story down first and then worry about the possibility of hurting people. “Don’t look over your shoulder to see what relatives are perched there” (On Writing Well, p. 286).
Don’t write in an effected style, and don’t pretend you’re Hemingway, Dickens, or even Elizabeth Gilbert. It will only make you sound pompous. Write from the heart, and it will enter your readers’ hearts.
In my next three posts, we’ll cover writing a memoir with the intent to publish, choosing an angle, the benefits of writing memoir, the nuts and bolts of writing memoir, and more.
In the meantime, start thinking about jotting down some old memories and impressions – even if you have no intention of writing a memoir. What events have shaped you? Influenced you for good or for bad? Do you recall those events from the perspective of a child or an adult (either one is legitimate)?
Let me know in the Comments whether you’ve ever written a memoir or considered writing one. For those of you who have written something, what’s one piece of advice you can give us? For those who are considering writing one, what events or subjects do you want to focus on? What’s preventing you from starting?