First things first! What you need to know to begin writing your memoir
What is your memoir about? This may seem like an obvious question, but herein lies the first trap for many aspiring memoir writers: You are not telling me the story of your life. Read that last sentence again because it’s important. You are not simply recounting your entire life history. Save that for drunken chats with Grandma Joanne. Instead, you are writing a book. You are creating a work of literature, not so different from a novel, the major distinction being that you must rely on the facts from your life.
When you call up your memories, you may have a great story about your wacky mother, a tale about the crazy time in that bar in Cairo, anecdotes about your obsession with geodes. But unless you can connect these stories, they don’t belong in your book. Your memoir could be about one of these things: your mother, your obsessive mineral-collecting, your adventures in Egypt, but it cannot be all of these things at once. You are not simply putting down the best stories of your life. You are writing a memoir, and the first point to keep in mind is this: Your book needs to be centered around a single idea.
Think about the last memoir or even novel that you read. When a friend asked what the book was about, I doubt you responded, “It’s the story of a twenty-year-old woman’s life” or “It’s an eighty-year-old woman’s recollections of her childhood.” Likely you would have said, “It’s a memoir about a writer recovering from the death of her husband” or “It’s about a year this guy spent in the Russian mafia.” The point I’m trying to make: your story needs to be specific.
In the first draft of my travel memoir, I thought I would write about the crazy, funny, and sometimes awful things that happened to me in my travels. But this was too general to make for a good read. Even with a travel narrative (a subgenre of memoir), you still have to write a book about a certain kind of traveling: finding love in Paris, visits to Communist nations, a search for a rare panda in the jungles of Asia.
Unless you’re famous, no one wants to read the entire story of your life. Having said that, you need to decide what your memoir is about.
If you decide to tell me the story of your childhood, you center the book around the problems in your relationship with your mother. Or you describe your adolescence, but you focus your narrative on the trips you spent following famous rock bands around the country.
If you want to rely on your entire life when it comes to your well of life stories, you can do this too, but you can’t just pick the most interesting stories and write them all down. Again, your book has to be about something. What has your life been characterized by? Perhaps you have spent most of it trying to escape poverty. Or perhaps you are a world traveler. Maybe your biggest dream has been to buy your own vineyard. Perhaps you always hated your grandmother until you finally became a grandmother yourself. Again, you are not telling me the entire story of your life. But when it comes to memoir, you have to make an initial point, a thesis of sorts, and all of the stories you choose must help support the main thesis of your memoir.
In my work with students, even experienced ones, I’ve realized how much trouble they often have with the following task, which is critical to complete before they begin writing their memoir:
Describe your book in a single sentence, not a paragraph, not two sentences. You just get one.
When it comes to writing your one-sentence description of your book, structure it in terms of a quest or key desire. Instead of saying, “My memoir is about my relationship with my mother,” write down, “My memoir is about trying to come to terms with a drug-addled mother who abandoned me.” Instead of, “My book is about my fascination with mineral collecting,” write down, “My book is about a lifetime spent in search of the elusive Brazilian amethyst and the difficulties I had in tracking it down.”
It’s critical to set up your one-sentence description in terms of a quest or want. In fact, I always stress this very fact to my students, but it seems that this simple advice doesn’t always register. Take a look at a few samples that were turned into me. Keep in mind that these come from three of my very best students, ones whose writing often left me open-mouthed:
What did all of these talented writers forget? That their memoir is a quest. That the story doesn’t begin until the narrator wants something. (Okay, so the first and third examples technically do include a quest, but the search is still too vague).
Before showing you how I would rewrite these three sentences, let me lay out the key elements your one-sentence description needs to contain:
A narrator. You'll want to define who this person is—is she a career-obsessed 40-year-old or a grumpy old man?
A principal desire. What is it that your narrator wants at the beginning of the book?
An inciting incident. Is there something that launches your narrator on his quest? (This is optional but very useful.)
With these three things in mind, think about how you would rewrite your own-sentence summary of your memoir. It’s as simple as this: “When _____________ happens, I do _______________, in the hopes of achieving ___________.” You don’t actually have to include the word “want” in your one-sentence description. Phrases that serve this same purpose include “searching for,” “hoping for,” and “longing to discover.” Also, any time you have a conflict in your book, it serves the same purpose as a narrative want.
The one-sentence description of your book is critical for your own purposes at this point. Later, it will also become an important selling tool when it comes to landing an agent. But don’t worry about making it pretty yet. Just make sure it contains a quest, either a conflict or something the narrator is seaching for.
With these tips in mind (and after lengthy chats with each of these students), here’s how I would rewrite the three examples I mentioned earlier:
So, now you know what your memoir is about.
But is your book interesting enough?
Take one more look at your one-sentence description of your book. Now be really honest with yourself. Is this a book your son’s soccer coach would actually want to read? Is it a subject matter that can hold its own with the hundreds of other memoirs on the shelves? Is this something a coffee-addled college student would be willing to shell out fifteen bucks to own?
If your answer to these questions is “no,” all is not lost. You simply need to re-examine the story you want to tell and change its focus. Let me give you an example of a student who managed to create an interesting story from one that wasn’t all that compelling on the surface. Her first version was this:
My memoir is about a semester in Paris spent chasing anything foreign and altogether different from my stereotypical childhood in suburban New Jersey, and the many misadventures along the way.
In short, it’s a memoir about a semester she spent in Paris, what isn’t necessarily a unique or gripping idea. And even though she makes reference to many misadventures, this is standard fare for any travel narrative.
In chats with this student, eventually we came up with a much more compelling way to structure her memoir. It turns out that she wanted to go to Paris to escape her boring upbringing in suburban New Jersey, but when she gets to France, it turns out that nearly everything she encounters is just like back home. Even her French teacher at the Sorbonne turns out to be from Franklin Lakes, a fifteen-mile drive from the narrator’s house in New Jersey. I love her new hysterical premise: She lives a life that is more American in Paris than the one she tried to escape back home.
Another student was working on a memoir about her battle with uterine cancer. Her initial description of her book doesn’t really jump out at you:
After a total hysterectomy and preceding surgeries, including a unilateral salipingo-oophorectomy (the removal of her left ovary and fallopian tube) due to endometrial and ovarian cancer at the age of nineteen, Jessica underwent a radical shift in perspective. In an effort to overcome depression, and a need to satisfy a relentless desire for self exploration she moved to California from New Jersey seeking adventure and lifestyle change as an antidote. Falling deeply in love with live rock music and yoga, she spent consequent years passionately investigating both; filling her nights with live concerts, her mornings with asana practices, and the in between hours with odd jobs to keep afloat. Eventually, she followed a yearning to explore more of the world and set out to take a trip around the world on one way tickets.
In subsequent chats with this student, we came up with a much more compelling idea: “I’m just nineteen years old and I’m already going through menopause.” The book is structured around this basic idea: What’s it like to be a teenager (or even in your early twenties) living in the body of a much older woman. In short, how can you be young when your body thinks it’s old? Do you act like a young person? Jessica tries, hence the conflict: her body always betrays her. Jessica tries to go to rock concerts and acts like an old woman. She tries to get laid and struggles with premature vaginal dryness. You get the idea.
Another former student of mine wanted to write a book about her search for true love, a story that begins in her childhood. Her first description of her book:
I was a smart girl whose greatest wish was to find one true love; but as I set out to find it, I discover that when it comes to romance, I am a really slow learner.
It’s not bad, but there’s nothing especially unique about her story. It chronicles her experiences with men through childhood and college until she eventually meets the man she will marry. But as I learned more about her past, I discovered that there was something about her story that made it truly unique: at age 12, she had a relationship with a boy named Jason, a man she would later get involved with more than a decade later, right before meeting her husband.
I knew that she had always held a flame for Jason, so I suggested that she structure her book around the idea of knowing more about love at age twelve than as an adult, an attempt to find Jason in every subsequent relationship. And toward the end of the book, she finds exactly this: Jason himself, which creates a full narrative arc to her memoir.
Keep these examples in mind when thinking about the book you want to write. Is there a way to restructure your story to make it truly unique, a genuinely gripping read?
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