Writers ask me what they can do the most easily to write a better memoir. While I can understand the wish to write more quickly and easily, I’m going to share with you that writing a better memoir needs to be done slowly and thoughtfully. A rushed job is probably going to be a botched job.
The following are my recommendations to boost the quality of your memoir writing. They are obvious front end tasks which form the substance of this post. Each tip below comes loaded with links. In some instances, the identical words are highlighted, but they lead to separate articles that develop a different angle of the topic. Do not omit clicking a repeated word.
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I know some impatient readers are going to see following links as a problem, but I hope that you will not and will understand that you are being offered an in-depth e-course on how to improve your memoir writing.
Be patient and dig in. In fact, it may take you a few days to fully absorb this post—but it will be amply worth the effort in the improved quality of your memoir.
1. Make a Memory List.
A Memory List is a list of every important event, influence, and relationship in your life or in any particular era of your life. It can be hundreds of items long! Why bother with this pre-writing task? Because it’s such a handy resource when you do write. Having a Memory List to refer to will help you focus on the highlights—the stories most deserving of your effort. Detailed information will let you tell the whole story as you truly want it told.
With an extensive Memory List, you may also have an insight into the development of your memoir. You will naturally tell yourself: “This is important and deserves priority.”
2. Write the most important stories first.
Resist the urge to write from the beginning. Start anywhere! The most important step is to start writing. Concentrate on single stories instead of on your life as a whole. It can be intimidating—and perhaps discouraging—to think of writing 400—or even 200—pages, but everyone can write one three-page story.
I often tell writers I coach to think of their memoirs as “my collected life stories.” Your single stories—3, 5, 10 pages long—will be collected in a book that will appear to the reader as a unified whole, but the seamless weaving of stories together is for later. Right now, your task is to write stories that can be reworked subsequently. You are doing first draft work.
That’s right: writing a memoir requires many drafts and you need to start with the first draft if you want boost the quality of your memoir!
Always let your first draft be a rough draft. Don’t make yourself get it perfect before going on. Polishing your text is a later step.
3. Double check your memories—and those of others.
Memory—yours as well as that of others—can be false, flattering, and defensive. Along with the Memory List, use all the props available to you: letters, diaries, obituaries, photos, certificates, newspaper articles, etc. Research your locality, your region, the era, history, etc., to give authenticity and context to your personal story. Whatever your story particulars, there is a book written about it. If you wish to write a better memoir, you need to compare the micro context.
Interview people who were there and crosscheck your details. A reasonable approach is to come to an interview—or story share if you want to be less formal—with a certain skepticism. Inevitably many of the account you hear will be inaccurate in some of the details or misleading because the teller has an “ax to grind.”
Ask probing and/or challenging questions. “But you told me earlier you didn’t like working there and now you are speaking as if you enjoyed it. Can you tell me more?”
Some of the data you collect may contradict other data form other people. You task is to reconcile the stories. Often this is done by insight into the speaker.
For instance, siblings of much different ages will obviously have a different understanding of their parents. Older siblings were young when parents were just starting off and perhaps poor while younger siblings will benefit from more financially stable parents.
4. Tell the truth as much as you can.
You and your roots are okay no matter what. You don’t need to alter your story to prove your worth or to conceal your past. Use lifewriting as an exploration and a celebration, not as an occasion to settle old scores. And remember: you have a right to privacy. While it may be growthful to write certain stories, you only have to share what, when, and with whom you want to, but tell the truth when you share.
The clear corollary to telling the truth is that doing so may lead to painful memories. You can work through this pain. In fact you must do so if you wish to write a better memoir than you now have.
- One sort of truth is of revealing abuse and violence and misconduct. It is very traumatic often to write about this sort of truth. The result for so many writers I have worked with, however, has been a release of the hold the pain had on their lives. Memoir writing is not therapy but it seems to have many of the effects of good therapy.
- In writing my own childhood memoir, I have come up against decisions my parents made for themselves being so wrong—but they didn’t know these decisions would be wrong. The consequence, however, is that they had harder lives than they had anticipated and we children did, too. One feels disloyal telling such a truth, but parts of the memoir cannot be understood with it.
Here are two good books to read to learn more about writing through pain.
- Writing as a Way of Healing / How telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo
- The Power of Memoir / How to Write Your Healing Story by Linda Joy Myers
5. Be specific. It will help you write better memoir.
Think of a memoir as a roadmap to a life. If you were handed a state / provincial map that was full of squiggles that were understood to be roads but there were no route numbers or names of cities and towns, you would most likely consider this map to be useless.
This is so easy to correct. Use proper names—not just “grandma” but “Felicia Moretti,” give dates—as exact as you know how (if you don’t know the exact date provide the month or the season and the year), outline relationships between people—”my aunt Mona was the youngest of my father’s siblings (after just one more generation, it is likely that few people may be able to ascribe Aunt Mona’s birth order), describe in detail—you almost cannot give too many details. Don’t be vague or general.
In being specific, challenge yourself to use all five senses. If you have compiled a long Memory List as requested in #1 above, you most likely have many sense details waiting for you to include in your story.
6. Explore the tall tales in your family stories.
I’m always amazed at how people tell stories about themselves and their families that don’t ring true. These are stories that might either whitewash the truth,make the bad guy even “badder,” or simply hide something.
- At the most surface level, these tall tales can be pure fabrications. Often they have phrases such as “she was the first woman who…” or “He was the first man in the state to…” Then in the same vein of probable fiction is the ancestor who was part Indian. A bit of sleuthing—reading, interviewing, study—will turn up alternate versions of these family stories that are more likely true. These stories can be psychologically enlightening and she must light on people. Exploring tall tales is necessary if you wish to write a better memoir.
- In some family stories, we were told about one person by a second person who had something to gain in telling the tall tale. If you wish write a better memoir than you may be writing now, be a detective and explore these stories. One technique is to ask, “What if the opposite were true? What if rather than Uncle John being inherently a “bad boy,” it was my grandparents who neglected him and forced him into that role in order to get their attention—something my grandparents could not admit to themselves.”
What did the people around you want you to believe about them or about other family members? Every family tells stories about itself that cloud the truth. Go beyond the official family “line.” There is no other way to write a better memoir.
7. Avoid using clichés and stereotypes.
Clichés that pop up in a memoir include:
- “my mother the saint.”
- “kids today wouldn’t…”
- “everybody used to…” or its variant “nobody used to…”
To write better memoir, you will have to make specific and particular observations about your mother, about kids today and about what everybody used to. In each instance, you will easily find that there are many exceptions. It is in understanding these exceptions that you will generate depth to your story.
Let your fresh vocabulary and insight, rather than clichés, do the talking. Simplicity is always best.
8. Set up a schedule for yourself for your memoir writing.
Honor your writing time as you would any important appointment. Ask your family and friends for their support in allowing you to make time for your commitment.
Writing regularly is more important than writing for long periods. Be patient and enjoy yourself. Lifewriting can bring you great pleasures.
9. Start a memoir writing group with friends.
For encouragement and support, it’s great to share with others. But beware of two opposite but equally discouraging reactions: “Isn’t that lovely, dear. Everything you do is wonderful!” or “What a waste of time—all that old stuff?!” You need and deserve kind but constructive criticism. Sharing with those who will honor your effort and challenge you to do your best.
10. Be a show off!
Share your stories with friends and family. Accept their praise and appreciation for your accomplishment. Writing your lifestories is a valuable gift to give yourself and to all who come after you. Sharing your stories will also encourage you to view your stories more critically.
Action Steps for Better Memoir Writing
1. Implement any suggestion above that you have not yet put into action. Don’t dismiss the value of any suggestion without having tried it.
2 What are your tips for writing better memoir? Leave a comment below for your fellow writers.