WITH a pandemic in full swing and many of us having more time on our hands than we might like, there has never been a better time to write one’s memoir. And you don’t have to be famous to have a tale worth telling. They say that everybody has a story in them – if you can extract meaning from your life experiences, then the chances are that others will also find meaning in your words.
The whole point of a memoir is that it should be written with abandon, no holds barred – worry about reactions later. Many memoirs never see the light of day because the content is too sensitive but if a greater good can be served by sharing a universal truth, then upsetting people might be a price worth paying.
Memoirs are best written after the passage of time to allow for processing and absorption into the psyche. It involves the same level of craft as writing fiction. The storytelling devices used, such as plot arc and character development, are the same, even if they are formed from memory rather than imagination.
It is important to stress that memoir is not autobiography, which charts an entire life from the beginning. Instead, it homes in on an aspect of someone’s life or a period of it in depth.
Memoir is less bound by formal expectations of chronology or factual accuracy. However, it is universally understood that, aside from some tweaks here and there, often in the name of confidentiality or simplification, in essence the story is true. Where factual deviations occur, events and people are more likely to have been removed (or fudged!). Fortunately, for writers who wish to embellish, there exists a form of memoir known as autofiction. Here the reader cares less about what is fact and how much is fiction. What is expected though in the former is a degree of candour and authenticity that might not be found elsewhere.
For the writer, irrespective of whether publication occurs, the benefits of such honesty (even with oneself) are immeasurable. The very act of organising one’s life into a coherent whole is the best way to make sense of it and even the most chaotic life looks less so when viewed through a the widest possible lens. Airing painful experiences that have hitherto been hidden is liberating and cathartic. Writing your own memoir is in my opinion the most effective source of self-healing and it costs nothing.
And the healing can be extended to the whole of humanity. Often one person’s life experience can showcase universal truths that need to be shared. Particularly when dealing with ‘difficult’ issues such as childhood sexual abuse or modern slavery, memoirs bring them into public consciousness, emboldening others to share their stories and from where real attitudinal and social change can occur. They also become a valuable part of the historical record.
Having gone about writing my own memoir, making up the process as I went along but realising later that despite some rookie mistakes, I had largely gone about it in the ‘right’ way), I have attempted to compile this guide. It combines my own direct experience, along with a handful of sources. As my own memoir is still in mid-flow, I still have much to learn but if you’re thinking of writing a memoir, then this is as good a place to start as any. At the end of the day, writing your memoir is your journey and this page only a guide.
– If you aren’t already in the habit, start a journal. At the very least, it will allow you to keep track of any new material (thereby making writing the sequel much easier!). Also, keep your journal, or a separate notebook, with you when you are out and about or travelling. This is often when memories pop up, so you need to ‘catch’ them before they’re gone – poof!
– Whatever you do, don’t start at the very beginning! Whatever memory or insight prompted you to think of writing a memoir in the first place, start there.
– Don’t hold back. Tell the truth and be damned. Think about the consequences after you’ve written it.
– Brain dump what you already know about that part/aspect of your life (and other related areas), as it comes and in no particular order, until you can’t think of anything else. You’ll be staggered at what pops up. Add dates where you can, even if they’re only approximate.
– Type your notes into bullet points.
– Approaching it as you would a CV, organise your notes into chronological order.
– Use external reference points as necessary, for instance, a movie that you saw the day a significant life event occurred. Googling the release date for that movie will refine your timeline.
– Home in on key bullet points and repeat the process.
– If random details pop up that you cannot place, write them down anyway along with a question mark.
– Some details might be superfluous but rather than delete them, save them to one side or stick them to the bottom, on the off-chance that their importance might become apparent later. Contradictions and ‘holes’ early on are not uncommon.
– Reduce your cast to the major players. As above, put the ‘extras’ to one side, as they might yet unleash further memories that are important.
– Where your story has a strong psychological or spiritual theme, look for metaphor, archetype, symmetry, synchronicity to add more depth. The more opposites (and harmonies) you can work with, the better.
– Continue adding more layers and details until a story structure becomes discernible. If you’re not already familiar with plot arcs, there are plenty of resources online to help you ensure your main plot and sub-plots tick all the boxes. Your character arc, as you metamorphosed from the person you were into the person you became, should also now be clearly visible. By now, you should have a clear idea of where your story should start. The best stories start with a hook that draws the reader in before going ‘back’ to the beginning.
– Throughout, showcase your personal growth and, whatever themes you have chosen to develop, keep them front and centre.
– As you arrange your document into a more structured plot, you should begin to see your emotional journey. You can also then start to think about splitting it into sections/chapters. You may want to stick to a chronologically linear storytelling structure until you have a better idea what structure style suits your story best. Memoir has a life of its own, so be open to your story letting you know how it wants to be told. The most appropriate way for me to structure THE LOST SECRET was through a present and a past timeline running in parallel.
– I do not recommend attempting to flesh the bones of your memoir until you have established where/when your story starts and where it ends, although it can be done.
– Embellishing or bending the truth will catch you out so don’t even think about it.
– If you have done a thorough job of structuring your memoir, you should already have a series of bullet points that just need expanding and be able to get through the ‘writing’ phase with relative ease. Keep a note of any new memories that crop up but belong elsewhere.
– Establish your own unique writing voice.
– Stick to one point of view (for instance, if you’re writing about your childhood, are you speaking as the adult or the child?).
– Choose your tense carefully, bearing in mind that it is possible to use both past and present (though don’t mix them). Keep your dates as headings. Even if you intend to dispense with them in your final edit, hang on to them for your own navigational purposes.
– In recounting your life experience, be as detailed and as vivid as possible. Use all your senses to tell the story – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, intuition even (this doesn’t mean ramble!).
– Put readers in your shoes.
– Pace the story. Don’t ramble but don’t rush a highly dramatic moment either. Establish a rhythm.
– Show not tell. I won’t cover this here – there are plenty of resources online.
– Use speech as much as possible to avoid long tracts of narrative. The reader will understand that any dialogue can only ever be an approximation of the truth of what was said.
– When sharing traumatic experiences, avoid victimhood and the language of blame. While you do want to crank up the emotional impact, your story is about you and how you dealt with what happened to you, not the people responsible. If for instance, you have an abusive ex-partner, humanise, don’t demonise them. Try to remember their redeeming qualitiies as well as the bad.
– When dealing with death, avoid being maudlin.
– For more complex works and memoirs with a ‘message’, you will need to include signposts along the way, so the reader knows where they are.
Finally, not only will you get out of your system that which you alreay know, you will learn so much more about yourself. You may well be shocked at what ‘new’ memories crop up and how the version of events you’ve remembered ‘clearly’ for years is sequentially incorrect. By the time you’ve started fleshing out your memoir, you may even notice repeating patterns (aka lessons). As the penny drops that your chaotic life wasn’t quite so random after all, it is as if you really knew what you were doing all along.