[Missed Part 1 of the series? Read it here]
[Missed Part 2 of the series? Read it here]
[Missed Part 3 of the series? Read it here]
[Missed Part 5 of the series? Read it here]
I just got back from a walk. It’s not easy getting up at 6:00 am and going out in the cold, wet air, but I have a walking partner waiting for me at the corner and I can’t let her down. I must stick to the schedule.
Do the same thing in your writing: get a partner and set a schedule when you will write and when you will call or Skype each other. You won’t be able to let each other down.
No friends? Make a date with yourself, and start writing!
Tips and tricks for memoir-writing
It sounds uninspiring, but….
Remember that the first six minutes or so might be slow and painful, but keep at it. It’s best to have a daily quota of either words or minutes. (Personally, I think it’s imperative; that’s how I keep up with my blog-writing.)
Make your outline as detailed or as general as you want. If you don’t already have your angle and/or goal, delineating the events you are going to write about might help.
As I said in my post on writer’s block, “Outlining is powerful because it allows you to employ stream-of-consciousness, or what some people call a brain dump, which is much less stressful than ‘real’ writing. Very often after outlining, your piece will write itself.”
Here’s a fake outline I made as an example:
Even non-outliners might want to decide on an angle, a goal etc.; others will choose to jump in, writing down vignettes, giving it structure once a pattern emerges. (Check out what my subscriber Bracha has to say about this with regard to her recently published book, in the Comments of my last post.)
Here’s one of my favorite quotes from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (emphases mine):
Write [the first day] about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. It doesn’t have to be long…but it should have a beginning and and end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. [The next day] do the same thing.
Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.
Keep this up for [several] months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your “memoir” – the one you had in mind before you began….One day, take all your entries out…and see…what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about – and what it’s not about….what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s unusual, what’s funny, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road to you want to take.
Then all you have to do is put the pieces together. (pp. 293-4)
Writing the memoir
If you’ve been doing your Method Writing regularly, you will already have a treasure trove of chapters, scenes, and vignettes to include in your memoir. Keep up the Method Writing every day, and you’ll find yourself with a first draft.
If you don’t engage in Method Writing, start “free-associating” about your life. Images will run through your brain. If you have too many images running around, write down the basics and then produce your chapters one by one.
What’s going on in your life now; are there any nuggets to write about? Does anything going on now dig up an old memory? Can you describe the memory and how it ties in with the present?
Your life as a tapestry
Take an inch a day and write about it. Anne Lamott, for instance, suggests in Bird by Bird to write about school lunches. What can they tell your readers about how you interacted with your friends, and how do they reflect your fears and insecurities?
I can clearly recall the dynamics in the cafeteria at my elementary school and in the eating space at my junior high; I have plenty of material for an entire chapter on school lunches alone. For instance, I remember the tension right before lunch, hoping I wouldn’t have to eat alone, and feeling such pity for those who did.
If you choose, you can expand a scene you’ve written about. My piece on school lunches, for example, can include what my friends and I did to relieve the boredom after we had finished eating but the bell hadn’t yet rung to go back to class. I can record some of our antics, such as reconnoitering the halls in order to not get caught wandering in the “forbidden zone” by a teacher. Or the day I was caught for breaking some rule and was sent to the girls’ vice principal’s office. My social studies teacher, Mr. Mandelson – he of the motorcycle and tight jeans – “coached” me regarding how to handle the fateful appointment…
From here I can segue into a discussion on teachers in general, on having a crush on a teacher (not Mr. Mandelson), and on being an adolescent. From there I can transition to peer relationships in general, especially among a gaggle of giggly girls and their cattiness, jealousies, and general unpleasantness.
…and zeroing in
As Lamott says (pp. 36–38), sometimes an otherwise “trivial” memory will spark a desire to write about a minor character in one particular vignette. Perhaps mentioning my trip to the girls’ vice principal will lead me to writing about feminism, or how the idea of each gender’s having its own vice principal is unheard of nowadays. Or how it must have felt being a black, female vice principal in the early 1970s in a mostly white school.
Make sure you Show. Generally, you don’t have to say “I felt humiliated” or “My feelings were badly hurt.” Instead, for instance, you can describe your cheeks burning, that funny feeling in the pit of your stomach, the tears in your eyes, not wanting to go to school the next day etc.
Pro tip: Don’t worry if your first draft is “garbage” (it’s not called an SFD for nothing). To begin with, it’s not; I promise. Furthermore, the most important thing at this point is to get everything down. Let your memories and imagination guide you. Afterward, you can cut and filter as needed.
Most people writing memoirs are worried about friends and relatives being angry if they are written about in a negative light. Those who choose to publish, however, have another thing to worry about: being sued for libel.
The truth is that most of us aren’t important enough for someone to go as far as hiring a lawyer and going to court. However, if you are really worried about this, you can do what Anne Lamott suggests in the last chapter of her book.
In my next few posts we’ll be returning to both grammar and other writing techniques, but for now I hope you’ve learned the basics of memoir-writing in these last four posts.
I’m excited to announce that I will be offering a new course on – you guessed it – memoir-writing! Fill out the form directly below and you’ll be the first to know about it when I launch. I’m offering a pre-sale incentive, too.
Let me know in the Comments which part of my memoir-writing series you got the most value from. And as always,
Want to improve your writing in 5 days?
Get a FREE email mini-course
- Writing techniques
- grammar that doesn't bite
- inspiration for the writing life