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 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 to click a repeated word.
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. This is university-level work I am making available to you.
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.
If there is one thing I would qualify as a magic bullet in memoir writing it would be the Memory List.
A Memory List is a compilation 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—in fact, I recommend that it be no shorter than 200 items!
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—and on the details that make the highlights become “real” for the reader. Both the big and the little details gathered in the Memory List will help you to tell the 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 interesting but it deserves to be only in an appositive or in an introductory phrase. This is important and deserves a whole section of a chapter or a chapter itself.”
In addition, when you compile a Memory List, you will never again ask yourself what you ought to write on a given day. The answer is in your list waiting for you to glean it for the day’s writing topic. Nor will you ever again suffer from the dreaded “writer’s block.” All you have to do is refer to your Memory List. What you need to write is already listed there.
My Memory List has been a great productivity tool as I refer to it to find a topic of interest on those days when I don’t quite know what to write or when I need a rest from the topic I developed in the previous writing session. (Yes, it is helpful to put your writing aside to let the idea in it mature.)
I have repeatedly referred to my Memory List with gratitude. No more wasted time! Once you write from a Memory List, you will likely feel the same way.
2. Write the most important stories first.
For many writers, writing the most important stories first provides them with the energy to go on to write the less interesting stories that are necessary as transitions or for understanding your story. If you are a writer who finds it difficult to “get going,” this section is for you.
In order to write your most important stories first, you must resist the urge to write from the beginning. I urge you to start writing from anywhere in your story timeline—not necessarily from the beginning story unless it is an important one!
Concentrate on single, most important stories instead of on your life as a whole. While starting from birth may work for some writers, for others, it produces a feeling of obligation to write everything. This stymies their creativity. It weighs them down. It can be intimidating—and perhaps discouraging—to think of writing the 400 or even the 200—pages that must be produced to create a memoir, but everyone can write one three-page story—today, tomorrow and the day after.
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.
Writing a memoir will require many drafts. In this tip #2, you are being directed to first draft work. In the first draft you write your important stories and possibly many transition stories. In your second draft (the distinctions are for teaching practices. In practice, the first and second draft work is often not clear), you will do much filler work and much deleting. It’s just the way it is.
For now, start writing your first, rough draft. 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 of your story with the macro context of the society in which it was played out.
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 accounts 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 from other people. Your task is to reconcile the stories. Often this is done by insight into the speaker.
Different psychological make ups produce different perceptions of experience. An extrovert will not experience a social family gathering the same way as an introvert will. A goal-oriented person will not experience a task in the same way as a process oriented person.
Social, cultural and familial factors also change perceptions. 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.
The take away here is to probe the data you receive in interviews. It is not necessarily reliable.
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 shed much 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 to 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. Memoir writing can bring you great pleasures.
I recommend underpromising and overdelivering on your writing time. So many writers tell me how busy they are and how they struggle to find time to write. When I probe their response, I find that they regret not having 3-5 hours at a time to write! When I suggest that the writer find a 30-minute block five days a week, most will admit both that they do have a 30-minute opening in their schedule—perhaps it is first thing in the morning; perhaps it is in the evening—and that it doesn’t seem like enough time to produce anything that matters—”I need to really get into my material!”
First, let’s look at how this short commitment really adds up. 30-minutes a day adds up to 2.5 hours a week. 2.5 hours a week adds up to 130 hours a year. 130 hours a year adds up to 3.25 40-hour weeks of writing! Impressive. I have written several books on this sort of 30-minute schedule. It works for everyone.
Second, let’s look at “I need to really get into my material!” Writing may be disjointed at first but once you have written several times, you will find your thoughts dwell on elements of your writing from the last session. You will also think of what to write on your next session. The need to have long sessions seems too often a cop out to me.
Commit to only 30 minutes. If you can write more one day, write more. You will be thrilled. If you can’t write more on on another day, you will still feel successful. You realized your commitment. This is the basis of underpromise and overdeliver.
9. Join a memoir writing group.
For encouragement and support to write a better memoir, it’s great to share with others.
You can create a group with writers in your community, but if you do, beware of two opposite but equally discouraging responses: “Isn’t that lovely, dear. Everything you do is wonderful!” or “What a waste of time—all that old stuff you lived through?! Why don’t you write happier stories?” You need and deserve kind, but constructive, criticism.
When you share with those who will honor your effort and challenge you to do your best, you will experience the most growth.
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.
While this is in the future, it is not a bad idea to plan a launch party for your book and announce it to people. This may just be what you need to stay focused on writing well and quickly. For many people, deadlines have a way of being helpful—but only do this once you are far enough in your book to know you will be able to write it.
Whatever you do today, write a bit on your memoir.
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.