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…
Many of you have begun your memoir. Many of you are almost done with your memoir. And some of you are still thinking about it and writing it in your head. Here are three strategies for the Return to School spirit you feel in September…
When you sit down to write a memoir you may wonder how long it’s going to take to finish the thing. The fact it, there’s no standard time frame. I have encountered several writers who say they worked for fifteen years to get it right—to finalize a solid draft relating personal experience that is filled with universal truth and which tells a story.
Others whip something out in five or ten.
The trouble with memoir is that it’s written from personal experience, and our understanding of the things that have happened in our lives shifts over time as we grow and try to find meaning, and this meaning making shifts, too, with each new tool acquired with age—the tools of writing, self understanding, life experience, and deeper understanding of the people who have path with us. All these new tools and awarenesses influence the story we compose, and as the months and years pass, the story wiggles into a new form.
Writers with experience have a shorter time of it. They’re not fighting against all the basics of composition that a new writer must hurdle to get a draft on the page, and they are better at revision, but everyone struggles for long months to figure out what material to include, how to make it meaningful, and how to keep the pace moving so that a stranger would want to read the tale.
Very practiced writers could knock out a good first draft in a year if they had already thought about what they wanted to say—and stuck with it—and had little else to do in their life. (A rare situation!) And then they might spend months in revision and editing.
But this would be the rare writer who understood that the passage of time does shift understanding of events and yet she must commit to a vision and hold with it until the manuscript is complete. You might call this laying out a story plan and then following through with it even though some new major understanding might have arisen along the way. (These rare writers see that they may incorporate some small part of this new major understanding, but they will not allow it to completely shift the plan for the story.)
For most writers, though, the experience of writing a memoir goes more like this: you spend years figuring out what to include. Then you spend some more years figuring out what that chosen part of your your life means, and then more months carving an arc from it—creating a story line that shows the narrator changing (in some big or small way)—and then more time lining up the events in such a way that they have momentum and make the reader keep turning the pages. And that’s just a first draft!
So, what I suggest, if you really want to write a memoir, is plan on spending a handful of years on it, and if you really want to write a memoir that sells, plan on spending two handfuls of years on it—and getting some help along the way from an editor, teacher, or educational program with whatever aspects of the compositional process that are testing you, be it the basics of punctuation or your understanding of how to develop character or build a story line that goes some where.
Think of it as the apprenticeship. I’ve never met a writer who didn’t serve one.
Sometimes the story we begin writing outgrows the boundaries of memoir and branches away from the task of reconstructing real people and lived events and leaps imaginatively into invention—first, invention of little this’s and that’s, and then (oops!) into the invention of bigger this’s and…
Concerns about hurting family and friends are some of the most worrisome for memoirists. My advice? Quit obsessing about it and get on with the writing. Plenty of would-be memoirists have stopped themselves before even getting started, due to such concerns, and many who have…
Here we are in February, the time of year when we throw ourselves back into writing and asking fundamental questions: What is a memoir? How is it different from biography, and how are both related to that thing called narrative nonfiction?
Memoir is a story based on your life experience and what you have learned from it. It is a winnowing of all that has happened into a tight view of a slim section of experience: the coming of age years; the head-spinning start of a career; early motherhood. But always, it is a winnowing of the vast, complicated arc of events that has constituted your life. Narrow, narrow, narrow. Find one series of events that linked together explores some vulnerable and pressing universality of life.
Biography is all about you, too—and all is the correct word. This is where you get to write about where you were born, and what went on during your young years, leaving home, setting out to make your way in the world, love, relationship, work, loss—the whole canvas.
See how biography is different from memoir?
Of course we hope a biography will show us mistakes made and lessons learned—the vicissitudes that brought a woman to be who she is, pimples and all. We hope for some readers’ transformation as we witness the arc of that person’s life, but this is different from the expectations of the reader of memoir.
The reader of memoir dives in for the short version, the lens of the camera zooming in to show the close up of just the years from 6 to 18, or just that summer your husband died, or just the college years that led to a Rhodes Scholarship, or just the years when you, through sheer fortitude, worked your way out of poverty, of just those events that came together to make you the vocal activist you are today. Slim focus. And from that slim focus a nugget of wisdom.
Narrative nonfiction is a similar but slightly different beast. This is a form where you might write about yourself and your experience a good deal, but you will also be teaching us something about the world. Maybe it’s the world of a dwindling tribe of the last subsistence whalers in the world (“The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life” by Doug Bock Clark, recently published by Little, Brown and Company), so that the story ends up being about the writer’s experience getting the story, and about the nonfiction information itself.
We could say narrative nonfiction is the wedding of journalism and memoir, and while you may not be a journalist, you can do the same thing with your story by finding a topic that is central to your manuscript and making it an equal and parallel part of the story you write about yourself. Here’s a book where a writer did just that: “Don’t Make Me Pull Over: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip” (Simon & Schuster, 2018), which combined author Richard Ratay’s personal experiences with road trips, and the history of the American road trip from post-WWII to the 1970s.
See what I mean?
If you take the time to peruse the shelves of current nonfiction in your local book shop, you will see a lot of nonfiction with the author as player in the story. Why? Because we are a culture obsessed with the personal, the “I” of everything. Neither good, nor bad, just ‘tis. And so, many contemporary nonfiction books give us the writer as a character and that character’s experience. But, they also give us information: the biologist who writes about his early days in the Galapagos, and Charles Darwin; the violinist who writes about becoming first chair of an orchestra, and the violin; the dog lover who writes about her dogs, and the industry of dog shows—two parallel stories that dip into and weave around each other giving us something fresh.
The name narrative nonfiction tells you everything you need to know: narrative, which means a story, and nonfiction, which refers to a topic from our world.
Can you find your project in this spectrum? Doing so now in February will make your writing year more productive, and make you more savvy about the marketplace.
September is America’s traditional back-to-school month, and with it come renewed desires to finish that memoir you’ve been working on. Writers always ask: How can I stay motivated to finish my memoir? Here are three tips: First, you must have a heart-to-heart with yourself about…
That is what my gut tells me (more…)