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Memoir Writing


Okay, kids. How are you doing today? Are you happy it's Monday? I'll be happy when Monday is through. So... I've decided to make this one about memoir writing.

I have been completely obsessed with the idea of memoir since I took a writing course as a graduate student. In that class, I wrote some of my best work. Ever. I wrote pieces that became part of a larger, never-ending memoir. I have become obsessed with this idea of chronicling my life, and I cannot think of a better way to do so. I have even been writing here at work. Don't worry; I've done everything I am supposed to do, and I still have to stay here. So, just think of this as an extension of my teaching day. But enough about me...

Although writing a memoir requires a lot of effort and teaching it requires a lot of hands-on involvement, here are a few tips my students and I have found particularly useful in getting started. Let's start with a basic definition (mine) of memoir.

Unlike a biography, which focuses on most of the writer's life, a memoir focuses only on a select part of the writer's life.  My personal favorite memoirist is Augusten Burroughs. Go out and buy his entire collection. Immediately. Well, after this.

Here are some questions to consider when deciding if a topic is "memoir worthy."

Am I emotionally able to focus on this period of my life? Many of my students have had amazing life stories. They have things they want to say, but they are too connected to everything that is going on. They don't have the perspective to look at it honestly, yet. Your memoir topic should be something you are ready to explore. Even the happy memories can make you cry. I love writing that makes you cry.

Is this time period important enough for me to write on? We all have our situations that affect us. The daily grinds of life can drain us, yes? Yet, most of the time, those events are really not worth reading about. Well, there goes most of my writing. Anyway... What I mean by this is, have the events being discussed changed me in such a way that I am someone different because of those events?

Is this a situation I look back on often, positively or negatively? If the event does not cross your mind at least weekly, it's probably not that strong. Now, I can hear the critics already. Yes, there are some events so traumatic that we block them from our memories. Typically only through psychoanalysis do we bring those to the forefront. However, it can be done through writing. Those events affect us weekly, if not daily, even when we don't necessarily actively remember them. I'm getting off-track. (What else is new?) If you think about it a lot, write about it. A lot.

Have I learned something from this experience? If you went through this experience and learned nothing, it is not worthy of memoir. That is just venting. Sorry to be blunt. If the time away from this experience has taught you something, it is memoirable (I just made up that word, I believe). For example, if someone's death taught you to always tell people how much you love them, that's good material.

Good memoirs, in my opinion, take forever to write. They are an emotional ride where you're never sure where you're going. Yet, you're absolutely convinced you will get there. You will come to some brilliant revelation, some change in your life, and bam, there's the end of one chapter.

More on this....

My students wrote five-page memoirs. Though quite good, these are not true memoirs in the sense that their story could be much longer. A good memoir takes a theme and bounces around a bit, staying within the same frame, the same relationship, the same theme, but bounces ever so gracefully.

I share with my students how when writing memory, things do not come in chronological order. Why write that way? If something you are writing leads you to go in another direction, take a tip from Alice and go there! Some of my best writing jumps around but always comes back to its focus.

Some other tips from my own education before my brain peters out for the day.

Put the pivotal moment of your memoir at the very beginning. Suck them in from the start. Your readers will be so shocked/engaged/excited that they will simply have to keep reading.

Embrace your emotions. Some people are afraid of hurting the memories of the past. Thus, those feelings go unexplored.

Do not give global perspective; this is your story. If you start to generalize, your readers will tune out. Do not put in a worldview of something. We want your view.

Before I end this (I have to teach again in just over 12 hours!), a note on legal issues. I am hardly the person to consult on this, but the biggest liability in writing memoir is connected to telling other people's stories. Be sure to consult the people you are writing about if you ever plan to publish. An editor or publisher has the answers to your questions. It is generally a good idea to change names and identifying traits if you plan to publish. I recommend looking into this and editing only after you are completely finished. Nothing sucks the pure energy out of memoir writing more than changing a name. An editor or publisher has the answers to your questions.

The prompt I put on my board today sounds cliche, but give it a try.

Scenario: You somehow know today is your last day with someone important to you. How are you going to spend this day?

Happy writing, kids.  


Takako Komori from Yokohama, Japan on May 15, 2012:

You give useful tips for memoir writing. Augusten Burroughs is also my favorite memoirist. Not only is he funny and entertaining, his optimistic and positive outlook (despite all the difficulties he experienced growing up) on life is inspiring!

Teylina on June 27, 2011:

Appreciated this as some memoirs are puzzling as to why written, while I know others (people who've had unbelievable experiences whom I've met) whose memoirs will never be heard simply for lack of the writing. Good hub. Thank you.

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