These past months of lockdown have given me many manuscripts to evaluate, and ample time to think about why so many memoirs need revision, even when the writer thinks the story is done. Here’s how the root problem can arise: If you write memoir from […]
Author: Lisa Dale Norton
I’ve been thinking more this month about how to find your way into the wealth of material that is your life, and compose from it a memoir. I wrote about this last month, and actually in all my columns since the pandemic began, and the […]
How To Structure Your Memoir (third and final in the pandemic series: stay at home and write your memoir )
When the pandemic started, I wrote about using stay-at-home time to work on your memoir, and then followed up with a column on the basics of organizing your shimmering images—your vivid memories.With back-to-school mentally kicking in (even if back-to-school is unfamiliar), it’s time to find the heart of your story and structure your memoir.
You probabaly have a lot of memories written down. But they don’t make a story until they’re connected. So, how do you get from remembering and writing to a structured memoir?
You say to yourself: “I’m going to write about the summer I was 12,” or “I’m going to write about those three years I lived with my grandmother,” or “my experience as a newly single mom helping my son pay for that horribly expensive art school,” or “that year I traveled the South in my cranky old van.”
Whatever it is, it needs to be a tight subset of your whole life. You can’t write about your whole life in a memoir. (That’s an autobiography, and it’s a different form.)
So, go through your shimmering images and pull out all the ones that pivot around the time period you’ve chosen, heap them into one file, and stash away the rest—they are for another memoir, for another time.
Repeat: Put away all the other shimmering images!
As you work with this winnowed chunk of life, more memories will jump up—some joyous, some the color of dirt. They are all important, especially the ones that come roaring back. They are the poles upon which you hang the story line. They will lead you to the heart of your story.
Heart of the story is always something ephemeral, some idea or notion larger than the details of daily living. It’s a concept, like:
• the summer I was 12—discovery
• those three years I lived with my grandmother—patience, or acceptance
• as a newly single mom helping my son pay for that horribly expensive art school—discipline, or fear, or perseverance, or faith
• the year I traveled the South in my old van—trust
Your work now is to name the essence of that time.
How do you do that?
By reading the shimmering images you’ve written; writing new ones; feeling your way back and looking at the past with the eyes of now. What did you end up learning? What were you seeking? What did you find? Was it a time of discovery, or patience, acceptance, discipline, fear, perseverance, faith. Trust? Or . . . ?
These are the human experience, and once you land on the big issue that rattled those days, you’ll have a lodestar to guide you through your story.
It’s a wholistic process: checking out what you’ve written, writing new stuff, trying out concept words to see if they capture your heart. Back and forth you go: memories and concepts, memories and feelings, writing, saving, writing, dumping. It’s a time of great trust in yourself, because you can’t get to an outline for your memoir until you figure out what your memories are illuminating. Writing a memoir is not just about the events; it’s about what they mean.
I know this is an untidy process, but writing is untidy, and vexing, especially when writing about your life, which you are still living and still figuring out.
But bottom line, follow these steps:
1) write a bunch of shimmering images, just to explore
2) after awhile stop writing broadly and choose a narrow period of your life that feels full of juice
3) put all the other shimmering images—that aren’t from that slim period in time—into a SAVE file and leave them alone
4) focus on the designated time period and let more shimmering images rise. Write them. Ask yourself what they mean. Get back to your feelings. What did that period in your life teach you? What did you have to accept, or overcome?
5) give that lesson a name: humility, courage, unconditional love
6) line up chronologically, in a new word processing file, all the shimmering images you’ve written that fit your time period, no matter how clunky they are sitting next to each other
Now, get to work crafting your memoir: rewrite those first-draft shimmering images making sure each one, in some way, leans into the concept you’ve named.
Let your narrator muse about what you struggled with, what you were pushed to confront.
Write connecting passages to link the shimmering images, fill in gaps, add new insights, throw out what no longer fits, and always allow the heart to guide the story.
Last month I wrote about using your time, while at home, to work on a memoir and suggested the basics for getting started. This month here’s the next step: what to do with all those memories you’ve been stockpiling, or with all the stories you’ve […]
We are all going to have time eddying around us in these coming weeks, as life shifts into a new and unfamiliar rhythm, but once we strike that rhythm—whatever it is for each individual household—once we get past the panic and stock piling of supplies, […]
And in your memoir, even if you are the kind of writer who leans more toward the meditative/reflective style of memoir writing—at some point, your characters will open their mouths and speak.
So, the question becomes: Are you allowed to invent?
Obviously, you don’t remember word for word, exactly what was said all those dark years ago. At best you remember the way someone’s words made you feel. And it’s true, some people do have remarkable memories, and do remember clearly what was said at key junctures in life. It’s not the same, though, as having recorded every single word said in conversation within earshot of your tender body since the ripe age of two.
So, what to do?
There are many schools of thought with this craft dilemma. I jump down on the side of the wall that says memoir is a re-creation of a truth, your remembered experience of an event, or a time, or a period in your life—what it meant to you, how it affected you, how it shaped your psyche and heart, how it shaped your future days. And since that is what I believe, my take on the dialogue dilemma in memoir is that you create what best represents the character, the moment, and the remembered essence of the truth that you took away from the scene.
And that is the best you can do.
I do not believe that memoir is journalism and that you as a memoirist are recording some objective factual history of a time and place. I do not believe that memoir is, at root, about recording facts. Memoir contains facts, but the outcome of a memoir is a truth, your truth.
I believe that writing memoir is about creating a felt experience of the truth you have come to believe about your life.
Hence, there is leeway in my world for the re-creation of the words shared amongst the characters of your life.
With that said, I also believe in charity and compassion. We may remember in our skin a particular moment in time with horror, and great anger, but then what words do you put into the players mouths? This is obviously the artist’s choice. However, I urge you to error on the side of compassion.
How might you communicate your point, and still show the complexity of being human—the stupid mistakes we all make, the pressures of society, the culture of the times? All these variables affect why people behave the way they do. The memoirist who can keep that in mind, writes, I believe, a more realistic story, a more human story.
So, bottomline about dialogue in memoir? Invent. (It’s all invention anyway, my friends.)
And then edit, wearing the cap of: Smart writer with a heart.
It was 1973 when Gene and I settled into a pattern of living together in my Canoga Park, California apartment where I’d lived when I was married and where my toddler son, Jim, and I continued to live after my divorce. Gene was the only […]
I love men, prefer their company, and sympathize with them, maybe because I had two brothers. Men don’t have it easy—for millennia, they’ve been suffering oceans of anxiety because they had to support their families and fight our wars, but I’m a woman, and I […]
Stephanie Davis-Namm, Richard White, Park Plazas & Santa Fe—Why We Write Memoir: A Manifesto for 2020/The Year of Seeing Clearly
I often get queries about how to write a short memoir and make it worth reading. I have decided to share a gnarly situation from my own life to show you how to take the content of your day-to-day and turn it into a short memoir, worth reading because you’ve aimed it at the social good.
I am also establishing with this new year a blog entitled: 2020/The Year of Seeing Clearly for the submission and publication of short memoir of the sort included here. Submission guidelines are at the end of this newsletter.
I initiate this blog as a forum for short memoir, but also to urge writers to use memoir for socially just reasons. We live in a time when such efforts are greatly needed. Share this newsletter so others can join in.
Here is my short memoir entitled Why We Write Memoir:
I live in Park Plazas in Santa Fe, an area managed by a Stephanie Davis-Namm, and a Board of Directors led by Richard White, President of RKW Enterprises, Auction Support Services. I tell you these details because memoir states the facts.
When reparations were requested, Davis-Namm and White disavowed responsibility for clean up. The Park Plazas employee tasked with managing the installation, and the plumber, both men, walked away without repercussions—and the Board of Directors, led by White, side-stepped. A woman, Davis-Namm, made it possible for each of these men to avoid responsibility.
I tell you these facts, because facts are at the heart of memoir.
I tell you these facts also because they illustrate daily life for people across this country—small insults, big abuses. Over and over, men in positions of power, the organizations they steer, and their functionaries, ignore, abuse, and take advantage of women—and people of color, and religious minorities, and gays, and elders, and on and on.
That is why we write memoir.
We write memoir to hold accountable those who are responsible. We write memoir because when one person speaks the truth, she opens the door for the next person to speak the truth.
That is how we change the world, a world with problems so mammoth it seems impossible to find solutions. It’s easier to lose oneself in social media than to figure out what to do. Where do I start? is a familiar refrain.
A memoir doesn’t have to be a book. It can be the story of an event. You state the facts and name the truth housed inside those facts.
The truth for millions of women, every day, is that if they had been men, their experiences would have gone differently. That is why we write memoir.
#MeToo is just one big screaming memoir, and thank the Gods. Finally.
But when women throw women under the bus, as emissaries of men, they deserve being called out. We are used to men in positions of power ignoring situations that disturb the status quo; it’s predictable. But women perpetuating these patterns? Make no mistake, these are the women who keep the world stuck in the same-old-same-old for those who suffer the indignities of inequality. Like Davis-Namm, they cover for men; they do their bidding.
Women will write memoir for as long as it takes to get women like Davis-Namm to do the right thing, for as long as it takes to dismantle the forces that keep their pay below that of men, to get affordable healthcare and equal opportunities for their children, for as long as it takes to disempower the men who abuse, and who wink at the abuses of their peers.
Whether it be water spilling into a home in New Mexico; a tainted drinking source in Flint, Michigan; the abusive behavior of a Supreme Court Justice; children locked up at our southern border; young black men shot in the cities of our democracy, it all starts in the same place: small acts and tiny choices made by boards of directors, community representatives, office clerks, middle managers—brick-upon-brick—laying the foundation for a culture of dominance and disregard.
State the facts.
Write memoir to right wrong.
Such is my example of how to use daily life to write a short memoir. Happy 2020, the year of seeing clearly.
Submit your short social justice memoirs for inclusion in Norton’s blog: 2020/The Year of Seeing Clearly. Focus on daily experiences with systems that perpetuate inequality. Guidelines: Maximum 750 words. Get the facts right. Skip the vitriol. Name the issue. https://www.lisadalenorton.com.
If you’re writing a memoir this year, you will—at some point—confront the question of whether your story should read like a novel. The answer to that question is as individual as your writing style and the story you have to tell. Maybe you naturally share […]