The List You Need to Write a Memoir

I started working on my memoir an embarrassingly long time ago. When I started I thought I knew what a memoir was–after all, I’d read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It’s the story of Maya Angelou’s childhood.  OK, I could do that.  I didn’t have a similar experience–not even close–but I had my own events to write about.

What I didn’t realize when I started was that a memoir isn’t just telling what happened to me in chronological order.  The story is all in how you slice it, according to Tristine Rainer (I’ve written about her great advice several times).

In order to write a memoir I had to figure these things out:

  1. Exactly what story I wanted to tell.  After all, I have had a full life and could probably mine several books out of it.  To focus on one particular story, I took the advice of an instructor and wrote a one sentence description of my story.  It wasn’t a Faulknerian sentence either.  Just one concise sentence that sums up what my book is about.
  2. What scenes belong in the book and which ones don’t.  I wrote quite a few scenes that don’t belong in the book.  But what the heck, they make good fodder to write blog posts from ;).  Or I can save them for a second book.  Writing the scenes was valuable, though, because they primed the pump of memory.  The more I wrote, the more I remembered.
  3. How to structure the story.  The problem with real life is it isn’t well-paced.  It comes in long stretches–childhood, adolescence, young adult life, etc.  There are threads which reach back and forth across your life, further complicating the process of ordering the book.  I found structure to be the most difficult part of writing my memoir so far.
  4. What to do with advice that doesn’t fit.  I’ve gotten a lot of it.  My first memoir instructor said something like NO FLASHBACKS EVER.  That drove me nuts. It took me four years to read Bernard Cooper’s The Bill From My Father and get his tacit endorsement of flashbacks to move forward with my structure.  That instructor also told me to write my book in the present tense.  While I have a couple of sections which are in present tense for effect, I discovered that it’s too difficult to tell a book-length story of any complexity in the present tense.  So I eventually chucked both pieces of advice.
  5. What to do about backstory.  I’m still figuring this out.  I’ve been weaving past and present together, and this is helping, but there is a lot of information that is getting shoved aside that has to be conveyed to the reader.  And yet by moving between scene and summary in rhythm, there still isn’t much room to cover summary, especially when even very tangible concrete descriptive (whatever you want to call it) summary takes up a lot of room, albeit not nearly as much room as scene.
  • What do or did you need to figure out for your own writing?


Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory

39 responses to “The List You Need to Write a Memoir

  1. I started my blog as a start to my memoir (for my family) not for publication. but have been thinking a great deal about how to connect all the stories. That is the most difficult part in my opinion. The stories make sense to me because I lived them. But will they connect with my grandchildren? Not as easy as it sounds, is it?

    • lucewriter

      Exactly! It seems to get more and more complicated, too! It’s all in how you slice it ;). If you want to create an autobiography, you could put your stories in chronological order and then see where there are gaps that need to be filled in for the grandkids. If you want to create a theme or focus or something you want them to “get” out of it, maybe you could figure out what that is and then pattern the stories as they make sense for that. Either way you will probably find gaps and will want to write pieces to fill those in. Does that make any sense at all? Even without doing that, though, I can imagine that your grandchilden will one day be very interested in your stories. In the meantime, we’re all enjoying them!

  2. The advice given in #1 helps me a lot. I have given writing a memoir a thought more than a few times but found the process daunting. I tried to start from the time of my first memory and go on….but like you said it’s too much. I am going to take your advice and see if it helps in giving me direction. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this.

    • lucewriter

      Oh, I’m so glad it helped! Please let me know how it goes with getting you started. I’d love to hear what you come up with for a focus!

      • I will. 🙂 I just got notification that you liked my poem “Mother’s Day 2013” I would also encourage you to read “A Mother’s Confession” The two go hand and hand. If you want to follow my Blog I will keep my memoir writing efforts tracked there. 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on billieazahir and commented:
    Going to make an all out effort to write a memoir. Going to track my progress here for all to see. First thing I am going to work on is the #1 found here.

  4. I have found the art of personal storytelling to require the same kind of skills as fiction writing, so flashbacks will be involved! The bottom line is that the reader still needs to be engaged, needs to be taken on a ride and needs to understand what and when something is happening. This is a great post that reminds us that the story is the thing.

    • lucewriter

      Oh boy, that is quoteable: “The bottom line is that the reader still needs to be engaged, needs to be taken on a ride and needs to understand what and when something is happening.” That is all so true!! Yes, “the story is the thing.”

  5. Luce,
    This is wonderfully helpful. I’ve just started taking a memoir writing course in the hopes of turning my psychotic rescue dog stories into something more. So it is timely as well.

    I especially like the advice to put it your story into one (non-Faulknerian) sentence. That in the 20 minutes since I first read this has helped me figure out a few of the problems that have been holding me back. I need to keep that one sentence in the forefront at all times to separate the stuff that I should include and what should simply be blog posts!

    Is it OK for me to reblog it?

    • lucewriter

      I can’t wait to read psychotic rescue dog stories! That sounds like something right up my alley!!! Yes, that’s thrilling that you would like to reblog the post. I’m so glad the advice is helping!

  6. Thank God it’s not just me! I had an instructor who was so critical of my first tentative efforts at writing my memoir. Unfortunately her voice is still stuck in my head. She had some good adivce, but she didn’t like flashback either. How are you supposed to tell the story if, at some point, you don’t flashback??? I think it’s natural. As you write the story, you’re going to remember something or need to explain something in depth that doesn’t necessarily fit in chronologically. For me, it all comes down to structure. I started out with some advice from somewhere to start writing scenes. I thought I was doing so well, but when it came time to compile the scenes into something coherent, I had difficulty. Still struggling with it!

    • lucewriter

      haha, Cheryl, definitely not just you! I think flashback is natural, too, especially for memoir. In fiction it’s just a technique, but in memoir it seems part of the way memory works! Memoir is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

  7. Reblogged this on FiftyFourandAHalf and commented:
    As some of you know, I’m currently taking a Memoir Writing Course to help get me focused on writing up my memoir about my psychotic, alcoholic German Shepherd, Goliath. Luce of, posted this really helpful list of things to keep in mind when writing a memoir that I wanted to share with anyone who is struggling like I am!

    For those anxious to see what my memoir is about, see these posts. Because you guys encouraged me, you know.

  8. It’s always so helpful to hear other writers are having similar or the same difficulties as we are. Thanks for sharing some of your struggles. I just listened in on a teleseminar examining the book “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and the instructors pointed out how seamlessly Strayed incorporated backstory/flashback into the narrative by using transitional sentences or events. Having read the book, I would agree with them. Elizabeth Gilbert was also very good at this in Eat Pray Love. If you check out these examples, it might help you figure out how to do it in your own work.

    • lucewriter

      Dawn, how are you?! I ordered Wild the other day as it keeps coming up more and more in conversations! So I will be reading it soon. xo

  9. Gotta have flashback! Present tense only works sometimes. Most rules should be tossed out the window. SO happy you’re writing more psychotic dog stories!

  10. I only read this because of the words “psychotic, alcoholic dog” in your lead-up. But now I’m intrigued… how does one write a memoir without flashbacks? Wouldn’t it just be a… now? “Oh, I’m writing a Now. It doesn’t have flashbacks.”

    • lucewriter

      I’ll be interested to see what Elyse thinks, but maybe what my instructor wanted to get us away from doing was moving from one flashback to another or putting one flashback inside of another, stuff like that. She wanted the story told in chronological order. How boring. I was born. I was pottytrained. I got my driver’s license. haha

  11. Thanx….getting 2 learn a lot from all d comments……

  12. Keep writing about your memoir. I would love to read more about your trials and tribulations. My goal is to write a book (notice I didn’t say get published…too much pressure) that is at least part memoir. I am starting with individual thoughts, blogs and journaling. Thank you for reading and Liking my blog as well. : )

    • lucewriter

      Ooh, Janna, I’m intrigued by that “at least part” memoir bit. A hybrid? I’ll be interested to see where this leads!

  13. Perfect timing for this post. While I was away in New Orleans, I had the chance to get quite a bit of writing done on my book..These are some interesting bits of advice I will definitely take into consideration.

  14. Love it! Hope all is well out West! Jillxo

  15. My best writing instructor ever, Ed Griffin, said “Learn all the rules, break all the rules.” It was not his originally but sticks in my mind to this day. The best way to write is in your own unique voice. Finding it has been challenging for me but I am nearly there. I hope, lol. Best to all who write their life stories in whatever form, ’tis darn hard work! 🙂

    • lucewriter

      Whisper Breath, it is such darn hard work! It’s so true about writing in your unique voice. Most of the time I like to follow the rules to save myself trouble, but sometimes ya gotta do what ya gotta do. And that’s how I feel about writing this book.

  16. Don’t you love it when you find an article that gives you the encouragement and/or instruction that you’ve been looking for? I, too, always want to share them. Good luck with that memoir!

  17. I have often been told that I should write a memoir book. The complication that is my life, I confess, is something only meant for sci fi or fiction. My concern would be “the truth”. If I told the truth about everything people I love would be hurt. If I don’t then why bother?

    • lucewriter

      From what writer friends tell me, that’s a common concern. I guess it depends on the story and whether you can just tell your version and give a well-rounded characterization to people who have done you wrong. Delicate balance, though, and I imagine for some stories that would not work!

  18. This is a tardy reply. I’m thinking about writing in general, not just memoir. I wouldn’t take anyone’s advice unless it seemed practical to me. Some “this ought to be in third-person”-type advice is just one person’s preference. Great –> let that person write in third person. My biggest advice is have faith in yourself and your artistic vision. Sail that ship across the sea.

    • lucewriter

      Wilma, I not only love your thoughtful reply, but reading between the lines I am trying not to swallow my tea wrong. “Sail that ship across the sea”–I love it!

  19. Came to say thanks for the “like” on thesaltwatertwin and glad I did! This is a really interesting post; I can’t wait to investigate all the rest!

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