‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ Maya Angelou
As many of you will already know, I am currently in the process of writing a memoir. The current working title is Love. I have wanted to write this memoir for some years but, until recently, it has proved too painful. Now time has passed, I feel I have some distance and perspective on certain traumatic events. So far, I have found the writing process both cathartic and healing. And my hope is that I may be able to help people who have gone through similar situations to myself. I am nearly half way through my first draft, and, having previously written two novels, have been reflecting on the process of writing both fiction and memoir. Here are some of my thoughts on how to write a successful memoir:
- Remember memoir is not autobiography. It is important to select your theme and focus. Is your memoir a ‘coming of age’, ‘spiritual quest’ or ‘confessional’ memoir? Does it focus on the theme of bereavement, addiction, divorce or any other subject matter? What part of your life does it focus on?
- The management of time is important. Events do not necessarily have to be written in chronological order. Feel free to move beyond the linear narrative structure. You may, for example, decide that you wish to switch back and forth between time frames. I recently read an excellent memoir focussed on the theme of drug addiction, Portrait of an Addict as a Yong Man, by Bill Clegg. In his memoir, Clegg switches back and forth between the present day narrative, where he is struggles with an addiction to crack-cocaine, and a narrative based around key events from his childhood.
- One does not need to be overly concerned with the ‘voice’ of the character as one does in fiction. Memoir is a truthful personal account written in the first person. You already have the ‘voice’ of the character. It is you! Just dig deep and get visceral!
- It’s possibly a good idea to change the names of some of the people in your memoir to protect their privacy. It’s also important to bear in mind that no one really wants to read a memoir which is about getting even with people who may have hurt you. Where it is appropriate, one should include an honest appraisal of the part one has played, however small, when writing about painful events from the past.
- It is important to be rigorously honest. Memoir is based on real events that happened to you. People who read your memoir will expect these events to be based on truth. One breaks this essential pact with the reader at one’s own peril.
- However, when writing dialogue, for example, it is unlikely you will remember, word for word, what your father said to you when you were ten years old. Even in this area of writing though, it is important to remain truthful to the essence of what was said in conversation.
- Memoir is not fiction but it still needs a ‘character arc’ and a ‘narrative arc’. What have you personally learnt from the life experience you are writing about? How has it changed you? When thinking about the narrative arc to your memoir, it may be useful to reflect on the seven basic stories that Christopher Booker writes about in The Seven Basic Plots. Why We Tell Stories. Is your memoir, for example, structured along the archetypal storyline of a ‘quest’, a ‘voyage and return’, or an ‘overcoming the monster’? Perhaps it is a good idea to have a ‘beginning point’ and an ‘end point’ in mind.
- I have found that I can use my skills as a novelist when writing memoir. This certainly does not mean I am making it all up! However, it does mean that I am able to carefully craft and construct the writing and employ effective dialogue, scene description and sensory detail to bring the writing alive.
- Build in time for personal reflection concerning events that have happened. This is your chance to offer nuanced observations about life and the world. However do not be too heavy-handed with your pearls of wisdom and write huge chunks of text about what you have learnt. Rather, sprinkle your insights sparingly. The end of a chapter might be a good place to reflect on what has happened to you but obviously this should not become a set rule!
- Remember, writing a memoir has a huge personal pay-off. The process can be immensely cathartic and healing. Overcome your fears (and I have encountered many so far en-route to writing Love) and you will be rewarded with a greater sense of understanding about past events and a greater self-awareness. Get published, and you will offer valuable insights and wisdom, often gained at great personal expense, to others.