Tag Archives: Bill From My Father

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?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory