Writing Memoir

I have been planning for a while to write a book about certain facets of my life and am still considering how to go about it. To be honest, I am still not 100% sure I even want to write it, as I know it will bring up memories I’d rather not remember and feelings I’d rather not experience. In many ways my life has been an interesting and vastly different one than most people’s. In order to feel comfortable and safe being completely honest, I am planning on using a pen name and hiding the identities of other people in my book by changing small details (names, locations, dates, etc), and including a caveat to my readership that I am doing so. I am not doing this for monetary gain. I would simply like to tell my story, entertain people, share some lessons I’ve learned, learn more about myself, get another chance for introspection and to learn the lessons I’ve missed, and hopefully broaden people’s horizons and perspectives. I have a few different options concerning how to go about it.

I could write an autobiography about my life. This typically covers birth until the present time, including every boring detail in between. Regular people’s autobiographies are often not well-received. People are often interested in knowing what a major celebrity ate for breakfast every day growing up or what color their bedroom walls were, but wouldn’t be able to care less about those factoids as applies to me. 😉

I could write a memoir about my life. A memoir, like autobiography, is true, but does not encompass every facet of a person’s life. Instead, it only encompasses certain interesting periods of time or life events. For example, you might write a memoir about serving in the Peace Corps or attending a new high school during your senior year.

I could write a novel about my life. Unlike the other two, a novel is fiction. Choosing this option would mean I need to market my book as fiction, or mix truth with fiction. Although autobiography and memoir often employ creative writing techniques (in order to make the book more enjoyable to read and to allow the reader to relate to the author), a novel requires that the book be in the fiction genre. I feel uncomfortable writing my life story off (pun unintended) as fiction and feel that it devalues the lessons I’ve learned, the struggles I’ve gone through, and the significance of my life events.

Examining the Craft

I’ve settled on memoir. In preparation for writing my memoir, I read Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (2013), by Beth Kephart, and I’ve gleaned some good tips and gained even more inspiration and motivation to write memoir, and to write it well. I would absolutely tell anyone planning to write memoir to first read her book, as I feel much more well-prepared having done so.

First, like mentioned previously, is to use creative writing techniques so your book is interesting and reads like a novel. Mentally bringing yourself back to that time can bring up memories, so try to bring up the smells, tastes, weather, and scenery of that time and place, as doing so can prompt the remembering of long-lost memories, emotions, and perspectives.

Second, everything should be true. It’s okay to have some details fuzzy or to change some details for privacy as long as you’re honest with the readers about it. Memory is fickle and notoriously unreliable, anyway. Two people can go through the exact same event together, and have different memories about it later. Don’t make up quotes. They are often unnecessary and should only be used when you can remember them and they’ll make an impact. Using journal and diary entries can help you remember exact quotes. While it’s important to do research before (or during) writing your memoir, realize that some stories (like family stories passed down generation to generation) can and do change over time. If your intentions are honest, that is all a reader of memoir can ask of the author. Speaking of her own memoir and the slipperiness of “truth”, Kephart writes, “…I thought of my own book on the shelf, the words fixed in their place. I thought of how stories mutate with time, and with the teller, even the stories confidently set down in ink…We can be absolutely sure of just one thing in all of this: that our hearts are true throughout the making of our story” (p. 123).

Third, view things from the perspective of other people in the book, not just yourself. Even if you have been hurt and you feel you are in the right, you can still attempt to understand other people’s motivations and what experiences and beliefs might have shaped them in life. Admit your part in whatever went wrong. Memoir is not meant to be retribution for wrongs done to you, but instead as a lesson (without being preachy) or inspiration to others. It helps to write after some time and distance has been gained from yourself now and the events you’re relating. Use empathy and realize that the people you’re writing about had histories and traumas in their own pasts that shaped who they were, and that they could be completely different people now.

Fourth, read memoir before attempting to write it. Doing so will give you a taste for what memoir is like and will help you find what elements spoke to you and what you should include in your own.

Fifth, stay unguarded. You learn as much as you teach from writing memoir. It’s okay to be uncertain and still have more to learn even after all you had thought you learned from past experiences. Kephart writes, “Don’t yield to the suspicion that you know enough, have seen enough, have wanted enough, have danced the perfect rumba. Don’t get yourself all pretty, perfect, and complete. Value imbalance. Remain vulnerable ” (p. 136).

Sixth, it’s not always what’s obvious that matters the most or is at the heart of a story. Sometimes small details have the potential for a bigger impact and are more relevant. Like what’s going on in the background of a photo or the small, seemingly meaningless details in a story that will really hook a reader’s attention, understanding, and empathy. Kephart uses an excerpt from Natalie Kusz’s memoir Road Song (1990), in which she relates the tale of having been attacked by a dog as a child. But the most gripping, affecting details are not the gory or scary parts of the tale. Instead, it is this: “I watched my mitten come off in his teeth and sail upward, and it seemed unfair then and very sad that one hand should freeze all alone; I lifted the second mitten off and threw it away…”(p.47, as cited in Kephart, p. 112).

Seventh, choose tense carefully. There is no right or wrong tense to use in memoir. However, tense can make a passage read more rationally or more emotionally, thus changing the impact.

Eighth, photos and illustrations can enliven your memoir. Although they’re not needed, they do a good job of making your stories seem more realistic and emotionally connecting with the reader.

Ninth, memoir, unlike autobiography, is not supposed to stop at the reciting of facts about a person’s life. While relating stories and events, memoir is really about helping to illumine more about what connects all of us — the realities of human existence, development, feelings, violence, goals, loss, and death. Realizing how you’ve changed. Questioning your old thinking. Allowing others to relate to you when they find they’ve held the same prejudices, believed the same myths, been confused by the same life questions, etc. Kephart puts it this way: “Memoir is active, it is alert, it is not lazy. It is about asking the right questions about the past and about the human condition…How are big things small and small things big? How do the refrains from the past shape the reality of our present…and if it happened to me, does it happen to you?” (p. 140).

To be honest, after reading her book, I’m not sure I will ever be ready to write memoir correctly and with the right motivations. I still feel very angry, retributive, and emotional. I cannot imagine what I currently cynically see as “going easy” on the people that have wronged me so much (mostly close relatives) or focusing on larger, inspirational and encouraging themes instead of on the hurt, rage, and confusion I feel and have felt for so long. I know there is a lot I need to confront and process in myself before taking on this endeavor.

Are there any writers reading this? Anyone who has written or contemplated writing memoir? Any additional thoughts on the art?

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