This month in the Witty Nib Writing Club, we’re focusing on memoir! Join in the prompt here and start honing your skills.
5. Tell the Truth
Sometimes you’ll want to embellish it. Sometimes you’ll want to tone down some of the bad stuff. In both cases, however, you’ll want to avoid it.
Telling the truth enriches your story and allows a human element to shine through. When someone is reading a memoir, they’re looking for a story that draws them into the reality of someone else’s experience. Stories from your life already come with a richness and detail that make them full of character and drive. Tap into those feelings, share the themes and drive within your story.
Even if you’re able to create a convincing lie, a story that isn’t true isn’t doing service to a reader who believes it. Respect the reader and give them something about you to chew on.
There are two instances where a lie may be necessary: the easy one is a lie of omission. Since you won’t be telling your whole life story, either for this club or in any medium, sometimes you’ll need to cut things that might seem important. The second is to change people or place names in order to protect the innocent. If you don’t have permission to post a story with a real person in it as a character, change enough identifying information that they can’t be picked out. If you can’t protect others, consider telling a different part of your story.
4. Focus on a Single Story
I love reading biographies, but they’re not the same as a memoir. A biography states the course of an entire life, focusing on how formative events in one era can shape the decisions in a later. It is more factual, dry, and somewhat historical. A memoir is a small story that focuses in on small, formative events. These events are told in a narrative form and evoke emotions. They entertain.
When people publish their memoirs (plural), what they’re publishing is a collection of memories and small tales. That’s why you often see memoir, singular, to describe a small story.
So get into small, gritty details. Look for formative events and determine what messages they sent to you and will say to your audience.
3. Determine Your Audience
Memoir is often used in a therapeutic sense. In this case, writing the memoir can help one work through a tough time, or help us remember a good event. It can be peaceful and calming to recollect the past. When writing with therapeutic purpose, however, the audience is the self – or the self and a loved one or therapist, at most. When the self is the audience, the goals are to please yourself and follow the flow that helps you.
When writing for a larger audience or with the intent to publish (i.e. if you were writing a Chicken Soup for the Soul story), things change. How do people other than you look at the story? Are the same things important? Is there an overarching feeling or message conveyed in the story?
When writing for self, the purpose is to get your emotions out. When writing for others, you need to suck their emotions into your story. This doesn’t mean you can’t write about the same events for either cause, it just means you may need to think about where the entertainment and enjoyment are coming from.
2. Don’t Worry About Having a “Boring” Life
I’ve read plenty of great memoirs in which nothing of real, plot-worthy note happened. Sometimes it’s just a person sitting around, doing nothing, while the world seems to crash in on them. It’s about the development of character and emotion.
As well, something to remember: your ‘boring’ life is someone else’s exciting. When I was growing up, I thought nothing about my grandparents’ rug, but then in college my now spouse alerted me to the fact that normal people don’t put actual sawblades on their floor. My spouse thought swimming was something normal people did, but I was very impressed and interested in how people could do competitive swimming. You are never too boring.
1. Remember, Good Writing is Good Writing
Check your grammar, read over your writing, tag dialogue appropriately: these are things useful for any prose. Just because you’re writing a true-to-life story doesn’t mean you’re safe from these elements.
One important element of memoir is voice. You want your voice to come through when you write, and sometimes it can be tempting to do this as literally as possible. As a redneck, I have plenty of relatives with speech patterns that don’t fit standard English. However, standard English is what most people know how to read and interpret. Find your balance between good sentence structure and your own dialect, and don’t underestimate the importance of being able to read something without much effort.
Other Places Full of Neat Hints
Looking for more things to consider as you write a memoir? Perhaps just want to listen to someone with more authority than me? Then enjoy these links. I’ve noticed that a lot of the same advice floats around, so definitely check out how many hints are shared between them!
Reader’s Digest “Great Tips on How to Write Memoir”
New York Publishers’ “How to Write a Memoir that People Care About”
Standout Books’ “Six Tips for Writing Memoir”
Do you have any more hints or tips that I’ve missed? Something you’d like to focus in on? Leave it in the comments! Or, better yet, feel free to talk about it in your own response to Witty Nib Writing Club’s first prompt!