Four Things To Decide Before You Write Your Memoir
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Memoirs are their own class of writing, but they have to adhere to the principles of great storytelling. Here are four things to consider before you write your memoir.
A memoir is a special kind of writing. It is not an autobiography – it doesn’t cover an entire life. A memoir is about a particular phase of a life, one with its own beginning, middle, and ending. A memoir is akin to fiction in its being a story; but it is a true story.
Memoirs fall into their own class of writing. Yours is special to you because it is your collection of memories and the meanings attached to them. Ideally, you are writing them down because you think others can learn from them – the good, the bad, the unique. You are trying to inspire, warn, or impart some form of hard-won life lesson that might benefit your reader. Or you’ve lived through an utterly unique life situation that most will never experience. As such, it offers a different perspective that makes it great story material, whether others will envy you or thank their lucky stars they didn’t have to endure what you went through.
The best designed memoirs have a take-away message that stays with a reader, and this is what binds the story. Often this message is captured in the title.
Yes, even though they are fact, life accounts have an element of design in that you need to decide exactly what to tell and how to tell it. This can mean knowing when to dip in and out of real time. You have to give a condensed version of real life, and it has to adhere to the same principles of great storytelling as fiction does.
There are several challenges associated with writing a memoir. Deciding how to cope with each challenge before you begin to write your memoir will greatly accelerate the process of getting your story down on paper.
1. Decide which span of time you are describing.
What is the opening and what is the ending? This is the same as a novel; all good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending that contains a climax and brings about a resolution.
2. Decide whether you are sticking with pure fact, or whether you are going to embellish.
Embellishment might only mean changing the names of those involved to protect privacy. Deeper changes might involve the omission of key events, changes in the true chronology of events, or slight changes to help focus the story. For example, two people who helped you along your way might be merged into a single composite character to help the “plot” and the reader. Fiction has a similar balance, but it is often in reverse. Pure imagination is inspired by aspects of the truth. For example, a fictional character might be based on a friend.
3. Decide how personal you are going to get.
The whole purpose of writing your memoir might be to air out everything that happened, especially if your experiences might help someone else know they are not alone in what they are going through. On the other hand, you might be willing to share certain aspects of your life, but not others. Decide where to draw the line and how it will impact the story.
This choice can prove difficult. Key details you may be reluctant to share could be pivotal to the story. If you decide to exclude your motivations for events to keep them private, your plot might suffer or your character may be incomplete, unsatisfying, or inauthentic. Of course, this applies to everyone in your memoir as well. While you might be willing to share details of events and actions that took place, the real people involved may not be, and you’ll have to deal with this. Fiction has a similar aspect in that each author puts some personal experience and a private world view into any work of fiction, it’s just a matter of degree, and what is private is never explicitly defined.
4. Decide the message of your memoir.
Focus everything around this message. What is the take-away a reader should be left with? Remember, the best memoirs are like parables. They are not only intriguing – they help others improve their lives.
What was the purpose of taking the time to write the memoir? How is this message specific to you but universal? How can others relate and what can they draw from it? This is where the power of personal narrative lies. This spirit of the memoir is the magic of the genre.
All the same writing tips that apply to fiction apply to memoir writing. You need to focus on crafting a compelling story that’s accessible and engages your reader. Leave out the mundane details and focus on what makes this a story different from anyone else’s.
Believe it or not, one trap memoirists can fall into is not fully knowing their story. It’s yours, but you yourself change. And just as a fictional character only knows parts of the larger story he’s involved in, you may discover new angles to the story you’re telling. As humans, we grow and learn constantly. Writing your memoir will likely change you as a person. You might be surprised as you dig deeper into your story, and especially as you get feedback from others, that you see things differently from how you first saw them.
And for the sake of the story, per point number two, you might decide to take some poetic license. This can make a project seem quite different as it progresses than it might have appeared at the start. Don’t be surprised if this happens. If you’ve decided ahead of time to stick to pure facts, this will likely not be a variable.
It’s easier to write a memoir when it’s far enough in the past that you have fully processed what happened and have gained perspective on the events. If you are still in the process of trying to understand those events, it might just be too early to write your memoir. Then again, writing, with all the analysis and retrospection it requires, can be a great trigger for moving ahead in life by gaining distance from the past. The more you learn from your own story, the more your readers stand to benefit as well.
About Dawn Field
Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process: email@example.com.