Ten Thoughts about Writing a Memoir
Last week, I posted ten random thoughts about writing a novel. To give equal time to my other genre, I offer these ten random thoughts about writing a memoir.
1. If you want revenge, don’t write a memoir. Start nasty rumors instead. When we write about people, we want to be fair to them even if they weren’t fair with us. We need to look at them, and ourselves, from as many different angles as possible in an attempt to understand the sources of the behavior. Writing a memoir is a search for understanding.
2. If you want to lie, don’t write a memoir. Perhaps my ten thoughts about writing a novel might prove useful. Writing a memoir requires a faithful allegiance to facts. If your grandmother is still living, please don’t kill her off for the sake of the narrative in your memoir. Stay true to the facts of your life unless you can establish a reason for invention and imagination and can cue the reader that you’re taking liberties with what actually happened.
3. If you expect to have an infallible memory, don’t write a memoir. Go on Jeopardy instead and make a boat-load of money. Memory is imperfect, and we have to accept that. The act of remembering becomes a story itself. Do you think you have a memory of something but aren’t sure? Admit that to the reader and then speculate on why you think this thing might have happened. The speculation will take you more fully into your material.
4. If you don’t want to think, don’t write a memoir. Watch mindless television programs instead. Memoirs allow us to dramatize, but they also ask us to observe, question, speculate, and attempt answers.
5. If you want to be certain, don’t write a memoir. Practice elementary arithmetic instead. 1+1= 2. Writing a memoir is a way of thinking aloud on the page. We usually start from a place of not knowing. Something about our experience haunts us and demands our attention because it’s in some way unresolved.
6. If you want to tie things up in a neat bow, don’t write a memoir. Take a gift-wrapping class instead. Our lives are messy and not necessarily driven by cause and effect. We can’t invent things to give our lives a more symmetrical structure. A memoir may not have a resolution, but it may derive its power from a deepening of the occasion for writing. What is it that first brings the writer to the page? How does the act of inquiry develop the character of the writer? What does he or she come to know?
7. If you want everyone to love you, don’t write a memoir. Start handing out free cash instead. All that truth telling I’ve been talking about? Well, it usually requires that you say some very hard things about yourself and about others. Some people will be angry because they don’t like the way you portrayed them. Others will be angry because they don’t have enough space in your book. Still others will be mad because they’re not in the book at all. Make peace with the fact that after your memoir is published some people will be upset with you. All you can do, as I’ve said above, is to treat everyone fairly.
8. If you want to include everything, don’t write a memoir. Sample everything at the Hometown Buffet instead. When we write a memoir, it’s impossible to include everything from our lives, even the smaller slices of them. We have to choose only the telling moments that are central to the material we’ve come to the page to explore.
9. If you resist making a scene, don’t write a memoir. Sit quietly in a church instead. Memoirs are made up of particulars and scenes, in which people speak and act. We need to find the moments from our lives that affected us in some way, and we need to dramatize them on the page. This scenic writing allows readers to feel as if they’re participating in your life rather than merely watching from the audience.
10. If you don’t want to change, don’t write a memoir. Write a manifesto instead. Writing a memoir will change you. I promise. It will change you in ways you couldn’t have predicted. It will change you because you’ll have to watch yourself live through the significant moments from your life, but this time you’ll have the perspective offered by distance and time. It’s a perspective that will offer you the chance for discovery and insight. When I reached the end of the first draft of my first memoir, From Our House, I wept, and I felt the anger that I’d inherited from a life lived in the midst of my father’s anger, begin to ebb. Writing that book gave me control over my own anger. I looked at my father’s life in a way I never had until I started to shape it on the page. I looked at the life we had together with new eyes. I saw and felt things I never could have imagined, and I wasn’t quite the same person at the end of that draft as I was at the beginning. That’s the power of memoir. It sweeps you through the past and into the future.
This is such a wealth of information in one place. Thanks for putting them together.
Thank you, Shiv. I always appreciate your comments.
Your wisdom astounds — and moves me. Found myself tearing up through your words.
Bren, I don’t know how wise it is. These are just things that I pick up along the way. Thanks for your comment.
What a gift your words are to me, especially now as I struggle through an essay about my mother. On every single point you made, I was saying “Yes!” I am moving through all the stages you write about, so maybe I’m doing something correctly after all. Thank you so much, Lee.
Hello, Jayne. Thank you so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m glad this post had some usefulness for you.
I loved this post and your ten points of memoir. Thanks you for posting them. I just finished reading (and reviewing) Beth Kephart’s _Handling the Truth_. She hammers home the same salient points. It cannot be said enough.
Thanks, Sarah. I look forward to seeing Beth’s book.
I started my memoir, Loveyoubye, because I was confused and pissed off at my now ex-husband’s sudden “disappearing” acts, no explanation, no apologies. I needed to “see” what I thought and felt. I spewed on the page. And then I started focusing on me instead of everything he was doing. I found power and mobilization and resolution of greater unresolved issues within myself. But then came a publisher with a publishing date. What the hell was I thinking? I can’t do this. But I am, April 8th. Numbers 7, 8, 9, 10 of your excellent essay apply. Thank you.
Congratulations on the forthcoming book, Rossandra. I love the way that you describe your process, one of seeing and moving toward empowerment and resolution. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. Keep doing the good work.
I teach memoir writing for senior adults and this list is fantastic – so true. I enjoy your blog and learn so much from your writing.
Thank you, Glenna, and thank you, too, for the work that you do with senior adults. Everyone has a story to tell, and I think it’s fantastic that you devote some of your time and energy toward helping those folks tell theirs.
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Instead of writing a memoir, I’ll write a comment. Thanks for the funny, thoughtful advice.
Tim, thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.
Very helpful reminders for my students. Writing to think and writing to be transformed are such crucial principles for all writers to live by, but especially beginning writers.
Josh, you’re so right. It’s all thinking with language, right, and that thinking can indeed be transformative. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment.
I keep this bookmarked and go to it again and again. I hope you don’t mind I tumbling it (with quotes and links). It’s soooo good I need to share it. Thank you.
I don’t mind at all, Beth. I just hope it will be of use to someone. Thanks for spreading it around.
Great post, Lee! Writing a memoir is certainly no easy task, and you make some very valid points. When someone thinks they want to write a memoir, they need to first decide what part of their life you’re writing about. If it’s not autobiographical, which is birth up until the present time, you’re writing a memoir about something. Maybe it’s about a marriage and divorce, a memoir of a terrible childhood, a memoir of how you got to become head of whatever company. You need to decide what you’re going to write about and then write everything you can think about it.
Thanks for the comment, Anita! You’re so right about the issue of selectivity when it comes to writing a memoir. There should be a clearly defined subject and time frame to give the memoir the sharpness and focus that it needs. Our inclination is to include everything, but we need to understand the center and make sure that everything sticks to it. Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave this comment.
Your comment about “if you want to include everything, don’t write a memoir” couldn’t be more true. It really is impossible to include everything from your life. We’ve gone through so much success, hardship, etc…and experienced so many milestones. It’s a culmination of ALL these things that define who we are. And I believe even though we may not be at ‘celebrity’ status, our story still deserves to be remembered in history. That’s why I formed our business. I would want my great, great, great grandkids would be interested in reading a SUMMARY of my life story, and I believe others would as well. Nice article Lee. Thank you.
Well-said, Joe! Thanks for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. Keep doing the good work.
I came across your post Googling advice about resolution in memoir. I left with so much more. I’ve read these tips in one phrasing or another, however none has ever given me so much in so little. Thank you, Lee
Thank you for reading my blog, Marvin, and for taking the time to leave a comment. Writing can be a lonely game, and I’m glad to know that my post provided something useful for you. Keep doing the good work!
This pretty much sums it up, Marvin. The humor certainly makes it easier to swallow. : — ]
Hello, not sure if you still read your comments but I need an answer on something. Slowly, but surely I am getting closer to writing a memoir but as I am still living and breathing, I find that I don’t have some complete resolution to the “obstacle” of the memoir. I’m changed in my thinking but still lead my life down the wrong way at times. Is it enough to conclude a memoir with the thought that I am just more aware now, heading my life where I want the ultimate goal to be, but am not there yet?
Hi, Jamie. Thanks for your question. Please be sure to read tomorrow’s blog post in which I attempt an answer. Thanks for reading!