Shelley Widhalm

Tips for writing memoir

In Shelley Widhalm, Writing, Writing Processes on October 12, 2014 at 11:00 am

Writing a memoir that reads like fiction is tricky.

This requires taking real life experiences and fitting them into the story arc of beginning, middle and end when life typically is episodic without story structure. There, however, may be episodes of life that work within the arc when you, the main or point-of-view character, face an obstacle and overcome it through your internal strength and motivation with some lesson learned toward the end of the process.

Writing a memoir requires you to make yourself into a character with physical, spiritual and emotional descriptions. You have to face yourself and think about what matters to you, what affects you, what hurts and helps you and why you are who you are.

You look back on your past self/selves and, through the process, come to a different understanding of why you did what you did or what you were thinking at the time.

The self reflection, description and analysis may break you as you put yourself into words and see what you were avoiding when you were just living and trying to deal with whatever life put in your path.

As you take yourself apart to find the words and then the story, try to remember the emotions, events, contents and the feel of scenes from your life. Think about what people weren’t saying. What does their non-spoken dialog, such as body language, gestures and facial expressions, say? What do your non-spoken parts want to tell, not just others but yourself?

Beside the emotional affect that writing about the self may have on you, also consider the reader.

• Leave out things that interfere with the flow of the story, because readers want a story with thematic cohesiveness, not a diary or journal with too much incidence and detail. Don’t assemble a scattered collection of scenes and vignettes that don’t create a cohesive and complete story.
• Try writing memories into scene form and if you end up with a lot telling, go back and rewrite the scene with more action and detail. Trust your memory to recount the gist and emotional truth of your experience to write the scene and see if there are any recurring images, phrases, themes or metaphors. Use these to dig deeper.
• Track the action that drives your story and ask what the story is that you’re trying to tell. Begin as close to the climax as possible to find the driving narrative that moves the arc.

Thinking of the reader is the last part of writing about the self, because it starts within as a seed that grows outward. Once you find that external place where the words go, then you can bring in others who are outside to give them a glimpse of your inside.

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