Shelley Widhalm

On How to Write Memoir

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on January 19, 2014 at 11:00 am

Writing a memoir can be a tough assignment, because it takes digging into the self while also telling the truth of memory as accurately as possible.

The result is self-awareness, instead of wondering how the past did its damage or had its impact.

Memoirs typically follow a particular theme or main subject, but can have a couple of subplots, while also offering good storytelling.

Finding this theme may take hard work of remembering, researching and writing, because a person’s life doesn’t normally have a theme song or a statement. The events of life don’t line up nicely on index cards.

To find a theme or focus, identify the patterns of your experience and select what is relevant from your life story. Commit to telling the truth and to give full disclosure, because readers notice when something is missing. From this truth, develop an honest and complete story with a beginning, middle and end, not a string of “and then this happened.”

I find memoirs that are episodic to be frustrating, unless they are told in short story format. The episodes, when they are unlinked, take the reader on a bumpy roller coaster ride of meaninglessness without overall tension or conflict in the story’s unfolding. It’s back to the series of events and happenings.

Truth telling in memoir requires being authentic to what you remember and felt at the time. Let the reader know how you’ve changed and grown from your experiences, how you were affected physically and emotionally by those experiences and how you found meaning and insight from them.

When telling your story, start with a hook that compels the reader to want to read more and show them that you are taking them through a story with a clear direction. You’re not going to give them a random memory dump of incidences that have no connection.

One approach to drafting the story is making a timeline outlining the big events and any turning points in your life, avoiding tangents that go nowhere.

Identify who you are as a character, fleshing out your identity beyond the “I” who does this and that. Get beyond what happened to the inner life of “who am I?” Show your personality and establish a strong writer’s voice.

Finally, ask what you wanted and what prevented you from getting that. What were your setbacks and obstacles? How did you try to get what you wanted? And then write and rewrite until you have a story that no one else could write because it’s all you.

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