13 Things I learned about Writing a Memoir by Writing a Memoir

Writing a memoir, from what I’ve been told by people smarter than me is vastly different than writing fiction or even other works of non-fiction. I cannot speak to that- but I can tell you that by the time I finished my own memoir, had it professionally edited, and researched the topic, I learned a great deal.

I am writing this post, not as an expert on writing (ha!) but rather as someone who went through the journey– to offer tips, and advice about what I learned, and the things that resonated with the two people who read my book. 😀

1. Write scenes, not just a chronological time line about what happened. When I was first told this by my own editor (see below) I thought, WTF is a scene? I’m telling you how things happened. Isn’t that enough? No. You need to describe or perhaps suggest is a better word – to the reader the setting – where you are and what is taking place so they can form an image in their own mind, rather than just say “On this day I did this, and then this.”
My editor pointed this out to immediately (and often) in my first draft since in the beginning of my book I was redundantly guilty of not creating scenes, but towards the middle and end, I started to apparently to get the hang of it and created some actual scenes:

writing-a-memoir-editor-proof

Here is an example from the first draft of my book from a chapter about getting a job in a local call center to make ends meet ( I cannot believe I am sharing this- it is oh so crappy.)

writing-a-memoir-chapter-one

Now, here is the 4th draft of that same passage though mightily different:

writing-a-memoir-revised

Can you see the difference? Scenes.

2. It’s not an Autobiography. It’s a Memoir. A period in time. A story. Many have written about this so I won’t beat this horse to death, but felt compelled to mention it. Since so many politicians, and “celebrities” have written autobiographies masked as memoirs the term gets confusing. Ideally your memoir is about a period of your life where something happened that you and the reader would like to explore.

3. Have a story arc. Since it’s a story- your story- your memoir should have a beginning middle and end, but more than that, it should have things happening- good and bad (and ideally both) that shows a character’s growth or learning. My own memoir had so many personal challenges, that a college friend actually contacted me on Facebook and said he really hoped it got better for me- that he was having trouble reading it! This was illuminating for two reasons- it showed how powerful a story arc is, and it highlighted how differently we value things: what may be sad and boring to one person might be exciting and fresh to the other.

4. The Delete Button can be Your Friend. Here’s what I deleted that served me well. First, I deleted excessively snarky comments about certain people. At some level, I think, I wanted my “pound of flesh,” but in the end decided that it really wasn’t worth it, and 99.9% of the readers wouldn’t get my comments or care. The second thing I deleted- painfully because I was worried about page count and turning out a “real” book – were chapters and passages, that, while entertaining did not serve the story. There’s that word again!

Pro-TIp: You don’t have to lose what you delete. You can make them into a blog post or an article to help build your platform!

5. Use your voice. It’s what makes you unique! This was hugely important to me- so much so that when I talked to my editor for the first time, this was the first question I asked. My voice? Sarcastic, self-depracating, foul-mouthed. Also, I was concerned as well with rhythm. I use all of the things you’re told not to: Fragment sentences, run-on sentences, and starting sentences with And. But I felt that the rhythm it gave was worth it.

6. It’s your memory. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect- but don’t make things up either. You don’t necessarily need to check the weather for a certain date to make it accurate. Also, you can improvise dialogue that captures what happened. It doesn’t need to be word for word accurate- nobody who isn’t creepy as hell carries around a tape recorder or notepad their whole life.

7. You need to lay the groundwork or discovery even though you think it’s boring. My memoir is largely humor-based, so I thought when I wasn’t cracking wise it was incredibly boring or clunky. But you know what? It proved necessary to flesh out details, which served to make the humor more humorous. Also, you need the reader to identify with the characters, be it positive or negative.

8. If you find the project daunting- and I think most will (and who wants to undertake something that is not?!)- break it down into chunks. I remember sitting in my wife’s office one day saying that I simply don’t know how to do it. I was pretty good at writing our Christmas Letters which spawned the project, but a book? Shit! She said, “Pretend your writing to me. Pretend you’re telling me a story.” And so I did. For me, it helped to outline the book in chapters, many of which didn’t survive the final draft, but your goal really is what Anne Lamott advises- just get to the shitty first draft.

9. Put it down- Warts and All. You no doubt will be uncomfortable with some of the gravity of the things you wrote about. And, you might even have friends, as some of mine did, ask how in the world you could write such invasive and potentially self-embarrassing things. You know what? They help the story. And, I even found it liberating and encouraged even a feeling of superiority being so honest. It felt good not to be afraid to take off the masks that we all wear.

10. Really nail the first paragraph and first chapter. After my discovery edit my editor bluntly told me that my beginning was way too slow, telling me that most readers would give up after the first two chapters- it was that boring. In particular, the first draft of the beginning of the book was smarmy and uninspired (my words.) See below the first draft, and the change below that made the final edition:

writing-a-memoir-scenes-no-edit

The New and Improved Version:

writing-a-memoir-scenes

11. Protect Yourself from Libel Claims. While it is indeed your memory, you really should change names especially if the character is unflattering, and look into any potential passages that might be libelous. Do your research on Google or with an actual attorney so you know that you are between the lines. I also chose to put some verbiage on my copyright page.

12. You absolutely need Beta readers and to hire an editor. I have written at length in two separate posts about the need to engage a qualified editor, so I won’t spend much time on it here. (You can find the posts here and here) But suffice to say that both my beta readers found flaws in the manuscript and in one instance they both completely agreed. (It seems that both thought that my manuscript the same parts that weren’t necessary, and they thought in a few spots I was too mean spirited. Fixing both improved the finished product greatly.

13. There will be Digging. You will, no doubt discover answers to questions that you might not even know you had! It comes with the digging. Indeed Blah Blah in her great post BLAH notes that one reason to even write a memoir might be that “ I am writing the story to explore questions about what happened.” For me, writing the entire work made me realize what I was searching for moving to a small town and provided a much needed ending.

So there it is future memoirist: the things I learned writing a memoir!

6 thoughts on “13 Things I learned about Writing a Memoir by Writing a Memoir

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  2. Thanks for contacting me Duke, I only just noticed the message. I think your post is fantastic. You’ve certainly covered the important basis. I like the point your editor made about ‘writing scenes’. I remember learning that from read William Zinsser’s ‘Writing about your Life’. His instruction was to write in vignettes – same idea. Thanks for inviting me over. The book sounds like a fun read. 🙂

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