I have a confession: I’ve never written a memoir. I’ve taught people how to write memoirs; I’ve dreamed about writing a memoir. I’ve even mapped out my entire memoir, several times in several different ways. Apparently (she says with irony), the desire isn’t enough.
Despite my lack of progress, I know I will write one and I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to fashion it. Much of this time has been spent reading other memoirs, which (I think) qualifies me more to teach and talk about memoir-writing than writing one myself would anyway.
At any rate, I learn best by teaching and am more than happy to pass along the following suggestions, which I’m totally going to employ when I finally sit down to write the story of my own life!
Memoir writing contains the same elements as fiction: characters, dialogue, and conflict, to name a few. The challenge with writing about real life is that life is boring most of the time! Give yourself permission to skip around, to leave out minor or flat characters, and to keep dialogue brief and interesting. Think about the books you love to read: do they narrate every single thought and action? Or do they mention only those things that are necessary? (My bet is on the latter.)
We just don't need to know every little detail that happened in your life. Organization will come in handy. You can wing a first draft--most of us do--but when it comes down to making sense of things, you'll need to cull through those 80,000 words and figure out what to keep. A great way to do this is by sketching out the story. My preferred format is a mountain range.
Start with the Main Conflict; that's your highest peak, if you will. Next, choose 3-5 major events to include before that conflict, and 1-3 major events to come after; these can be smaller peaks. You can sprinkle in backstory (foliage) and minor events (even smaller peaks) wherever you want, and if it isn't too overwhelming, note some major themes you're playing around with (rivers running through).
Outside of having a fun time making art, and getting outside the "box" of your memory writing, forcing yourself to choose a limited number of major scenes will really help you decide on how much of your tome-of-a-first-draft you will include in the revision. Even if your story isn’t this straightforward, you can winnow it down in some other visual way.
There's a trick I learned in a play-writing workshop: if there's a gun in Act 1, someone's going to get shot in Act 5. Basically: if you introduce something, be aware that the reader is going to expect that it has a purpose. One of the best ways to paint the truth without losing sight of the facts is to appeal to the reader's senses. What are the colors of the flowers on the table? What do they smell like? How many are there? Do they have thorns?
Fiction writers have the liberty to make all of these things whatever they want them to be, which includes the option of making them significant. (Red roses with thorns signify a conflict in the primary passion, for example.) Memoir writing requires a little more deliberation... a little more, well, remembering. What were the color of the flowers on the table that day? AND, does that color/scent/placement/etc. have anything to do with what happened before or after you noticed the bouquet? If yes, the pink peonies go in the story. If no, they stay out.
A fun exercise you can do is to literally paint the setting of the particular scene you're working on. And if you're not a painter, per se, that's okay! Just draw it out or sketch it or use your kiddo’s crayons. The point is to put together a visual scene that mirrors the one you're writing about. Put every single thing you can remember in this visual portrayal, whether you think it's significant or not.
After you have the room’s details sketched out, do some journaling to see which items feel important. Circle those items in your drawing, and write out as many sensory details as you can about those items. Even though you won't put ALL the sensory details in your final memoir, it's good to have them at the forefront of your memory, in case you need them.
I'll share more ideas in Part Two!
P.S. I spend most of my time “not writing” as an editor and would love to read anything you send my way. Email me anytime firstname.lastname@example.org
Lee Lee Thompson is the #ladyboss ofThe Perpetual You—a lifestyle brand for women living intentionally. An editor by trade, designer by heart, and mother by choice, she seeks intentional practices and a mindful mindset. Connect with her through Facebook, Instagram, or email. If ever you’re near Hamden, Connecticut, she welcomes you to stop by her front porch.
Portrait of the author by Joanna Fisher.
A love of reading is often discovered at a young age and is a tremendous asset for anyone; readers have an entire world available to them that non-readers don’t benefit from. They can learn skills, entertain themselves, glean wisdom from history, and find inspiration for self-improvement using nothing but a (free!) public library. Yet sometimes, though children can read, they see it more as required work than a privilege and miss out on the joy that the habit can bring.