Writing Your Memoir: Dear Love, Dear John, Dear Reader

Instead of creating a traditional narrative memoir, you could decide to present your story as a long letter or a series of letters.  You could either be addressing a single person or group or be addressing letters to the full range of people who have been important in your life so far.  Using letters as a memoir-writing strategy can offer advantages.

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News from My Lad, by James Campbell, 1858-1859, Walker Art Gallery – from Wikimedia Commons

Imagining that you are writing to a specific person (a child or grandchild, a friend or spouse, the daughter you never had . . .) or group (your grandchildren, people facing the same challenges you have faced, your former boyfriends/girlfriends . . .) may help you to focus your writing.  By writing directly to a person or group, you will keep that person’s/group’s needs and interests in mind as you compose your work.  Your “recipient”/”recipients” for the letter or letters that become your memoir will, in effect, become a character or characters in your essay or book.  Other readers will enjoy eavesdropping on your one-sided letter-conversation.

Instead of seeing your memoir as a long letter or series of letters to a single person or group, you may want to write separate “letters” to many of the important people in your life, past and present.  These letters can then be compiled and organized into a memoir.  Writing letters to the people who have affected you (for good or ill or some of each) can be powerful.   You will not only be exploring significant parts of your life but also be clarifying for yourself your memories and feelings—from loving and grateful to furious and resentful.  It is, of course, important to avoid libel and to consider whether disguising or even omitting some parts of your story is appropriate.

Here are excerpts from three letters that illustrate what can emerge from “writing to” people who played memorable roles, whether fleeting or long lasting.  In these letters, I address a small girl who became an indelible memory, “talk” to a former boss, and revisit my relationship with a man with whom I was once engaged.  Maybe these excerpts will bring to mind letters you, too, would like to write (for your memoir rather than the mail!).

 

Dear Little Girl,
Do you remember me now?  You seemed to know me then.  I call you “Little Girl,” but you’re almost grown by now, nearly fifteen years after that October day in New York City.  You and your mother were together in a waiting room where my parents and I also sat.  You, a tiny storybook child of two or three, walked over to me and laid your head on my knees, staying beside me until embarrassment seemed to call you back to your mother.
Who was I to you?  To me, you were affection and acceptance, but I’ve wondered since if you were more.  I’ve wondered if you and I were more, more than a chance encounter.  As bizarre as some may think this question: did you remember me from a life before the one we share as strangers now?  Were you my daughter then?
I have longed for you in this life, longed for the daughter who was not to be.  I have felt that I failed, failed to find a husband, form a family, mother a child. . . .

 

Dear _____,
I have been thinking back on the years I wrote for you and their weight in my life.  Let me first recognize that you have admirable qualities as an administrator and boss. . . . I don’t know if you realize, however, how difficult I found working for you.  I would like for you to understand.
I should first explain my views on the right and wrong use of ghostwriters.  A ghostwriter fills a useful and ethical role by helping leaders express their own ideas effectively.  In contrast, leaders who cannot or will not articulate the main points to be conveyed in a book, report, article, blog, or other project are asking their writers to do their thinking for them. . . . While I appreciate your graciousness in acknowledging my role as a member of your team, I wish you had assumed your full share of the teamwork. . . .

 

Dear Sam,
I wonder what life has brought you.  Can you believe we’re now in our 60s?  It feels like just a few summers ago that we met in Dr. Andrew’s course on drama.  He always wore sandals and Bermuda shorts to class.  You were starting your master’s degree in English and would begin teaching in the fall, and I was a semester away from completing my undergraduate English degree.  My hair was long then, and I often wore it in a bun, which you later criticized as severe and proper.  You seemed to like my looks well enough to ask me out, however, and I agreed to your invitation with reluctance.   With your slim height, fine features, and beautiful hair, you could have been attractive. . . .
I remember studying in Millstone Hall one afternoon and seeing you walk by outside.  I’d agreed to meet you but was tempted to disappear instead; I wish I had.  I do find some pleasure in being able to say I was once engaged and had set a wedding date.  (This month we would have celebrated our forty-fifth wedding anniversary in the unlikely event that we had stayed married.)  But when I review our year-long acquaintance in my memory, I experience resentment toward us both. . . .

 

Centre Meeting - pencil
Site of my almost-wedding: Centre Meetinghouse, drawing by Mason Hayek, from Growing to 80

 

If you feel inclined, try jumpstarting your memoir by writing a letter to include in your essay or book.  Will letter writing be the key to your writing and finishing your memoir?

 

Next: Nontraditional memoirs—photographs and drawings

 

North Country August

Maine Morning
Maine Morning, by Mason Hayek

For me, August is a month of change.  It is a time of coming to the world and growing older, of awakening to sun-filled hot, blue mornings filled with blossoming, burgeoning life.  And also for me, August is a month of meeting loss and death.

I was born in August, and on the August day that I marked fifty-five years of life, my infinitely dear father died.  In the years I lived in the North Country—in Maine and in New York near the Canadian border—August was a time of transition for Nature, too.  Wind stirred the lakes, a few leaves turned red before their time, and most nights called for warm blankets and flannel nightgowns.

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August sky

In “North Country August,” autumn tunes up its season of change.  In this poem, I welcome the coming of autumn’s pared-down beauty.  I will never cease grieving my losses, above all my parents and other dear ones who have gone on ahead.  Yet while I struggle to keep the confident outlook of the poem’s last stanza, I vow to embrace its peace and optimism, as best I can.

North Country August

A large brown duck with orange feet stands on a log by the creek
And then swims upstream against the current.
In the smooth water, a perfect duck looks back at her.
Crows call between the dead trees of the swamp.
Reeds and low brambles hold an early fall dryness,
While the scraggly petunias in window boxes still remember spring.
A monarch butterfly tastes purple phlox.
Chattering chickadees fly in to feed on sunflower seeds.
The sky is clear, but the mountains are lost in haze.
The Earth waits for change.

Along the fence roses bloom, with buds forming
As if the month were still July.
Would I want to live in July forever?
August is Earth’s send-off to subtler days ahead.
How lovely it will be to sleep soundly under my blanket.
Already the Sun is setting earlier,
With evenings that give more time for reflection,
Fewer demands to be out doing.

One glorious fall morning, the snow geese will fill the sky
From horizon to horizon.
Then snow crystals will sparkle in cold December air,
And mists will rise until the lake is frozen.
The first reawakening will be the birds on a March morning.
Ice will boom in the warming Sun,
And the seagulls will congregate on the flows by the ferry channel in glorious reunion.
The silent flight of herons, with their long dancers’ legs, will herald summer,
Spread before us once again.

I was born in August.
Each year of my life closes then.
But as my season of birth,
August is the beginning for what is still to come.
My spring will not return in this life.
Yet I choose not to see August as summer’s end.
It shall be my passage into vivid autumn colors,
My transformation into the clarity of September’s blue skies.
I shall warm myself in the cool evenings by my own fires
And by the fires of losses turned into memories
And regrets into experience.
I will, like the roses of autumn, bloom in beauty and tranquility
With no thought of the frost to come.

Butterflies 1

“North Country August” also appears in my book A Woman in Time.

Writing Your Memoir: So What Is a “Narrative Arc” and Why Would I Want One?

Daddy's Paternal Grandparents - Mary and John Hayek
My father’s paternal grandparents, Mary and John Hayek (from Growing to 80, by Mason Hayek)

Perhaps the most vaunted phrase in memoir writing is narrative arc.  If you have read books about writing memoirs or attended a conference focusing on creative nonfiction, you have almost certainly been told that the narrative arc is a sacred thou shalt for memoir authors.  (Creative nonfiction is nonfiction such as a memoir that is written using the tools of effective fiction writing, including strong character development, dialogue, and memorable settings and imagery.)

The term narrative arc refers to the storyline in creative nonfiction;
the narrative arc corresponds to the plot in a novel or short story.

Having a narrative arc in a memoir means telling a true story that builds to a climax and then, at the end, comes to a resolution.  It includes:

  • Setting the scene
  • Introducing the problem or conflict on which the story will focus
  • Putting in motion the events of the story
  • Building to a climax
  • Bringing the story to a conclusion that resolves the central problem or conflict in some way (although not necessarily through a happy ending)

If you are hoping to interest an agent or a traditional publisher in your book-length memoir, you will likely be expected to have included a fully established narrative arc that spans the entire book.  In other words, your memoir can’t simply be a collection of discrete episodes and descriptions.  Your book will be asked to depict the progression in your life (and that of others involved) as you meet and wrestle with challenges, reach a climax in your efforts, and then end up changing in some way.

For instance, instead of telling pretty much everything that happened to you while you were in high school, you would need to focus on a central and especially meaningful aspect of your experience.  Perhaps you were painfully shy and discouraged when you were fourteen, but through a series of notable experiences (belonging to a theater group? having a boyfriend or girlfriend? suffering a terrible loss? working with a memorable teacher?), you gained the confidence that has helped you to go on to a satisfying adult life.  If the story of your growth from painfully withdrawn to impressively confident is the focus of your memoir, you have met the goal of having a narrative arc.

mother-and-me-in-hats.jpg

The beginning of your book will set the scene—providing the background and context for your memoir.  You will also set the book’s events in motion.  For example, maybe the first event to be included will depict your running to hide in your room when the popular girl or boy from across the street appears at your door.  The story will build and build until you reach a turning point—the moment that your transformation from awkward to outgoing becomes fully evident to you and others.  By the end of the book, we will have the satisfaction of knowing the strong person that you have become—that you have become in spite of and also because of your many painful challenges.

If you are planning to self-publish your book-length memoir or are writing it for your family and friends, you can, if you wish, thumb your nose at the need for a narrative arc that spans your entire memoir.  But even then, making sure that each scene or chapter has a narrative arc can add significantly to the impact of your writing.  If a scene, chapter, or essay has a clear narrative arc, you can feel confident that your writing is focused and that the point you are making (your theme) will be clear to your readers.  After all, the narrative arc is fundamental to good storytelling, from sharing a funny or infuriating experience that happened at work to composing the next Angela’s Ashes, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or Tuesdays with Morrie.

Here—from my mother’s memoir, Paint Lick—is an example of a short memoir chapter that has an evident narrative arc.  The first paragraph sets the scene; subsequent passages let us know more about the setting and people involved.  In paragraph two, we are introduced to the central problem of the story—robbers are planning to rob the village bank—and the action of the story begins.  Each detail, including the false conclusion that the threat is over, leads us toward the climax: “The bank had been robbed. The men in the big black car were the robbers, and Mr. Roop and two other men were locked in the vault.”  We learn additional information about that climactic event, and then the story moves toward its resolution as two of the robbers are caught, sent to prison, and eventually released.

The Bank Robbery
By Doris Burgess Hayek

Paint Lick life was not without adventure. This is the story of some amateur desperadoes who outwitted some village vigilantes but, in the end, fell into the hands of the sheriff and one of Paint Lick’s little ladies.

In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to pick up the phone receiver planning to make a call and hear a conversation on another line. This we called “crosstalk.” One such time, a Paint Lick resident heard over crosstalk a conversation between two men planning to rob a bank. One man told the other that Paint Lick was unincorporated and the bank was strong. They set a date. The news from the crosstalk spread in the community, and several men planned a warm welcome for the robbers.

On the morning of the day the robbers were supposed to come, the Paint Lick men, each with a shotgun, assembled at second-floor windows across from the bank. They planned to shoot out the tires on the robbers’ car. The men waited and waited, and the robbers didn’t come. This time crosstalk had helped the robbers. They had been tipped off that the Paint Lick men were waiting for them.

Time passed, and everyone assumed the threat was over.

One morning when I was playing croquet in our front yard with my sister, her girlfriend Polly, and Joe, a young neighbor boy, we looked up to see a big black car pass by. We wondered why the occupants were moving around. Polly said, “Ooh, those mean-looking men,” and she danced around, swinging her mallet and singing, “I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you.”  Shortly, Mrs. Roop, Joe’s mother, called, “Joe-oh, come home.”

Word spread quickly: The bank had been robbed. The men in the big black car were the robbers, and Mr. Roop and two other men were locked in the vault.

Soon, we heard Mrs. Logsdon’s account. She was standing in the doorway of her general store, next to the bank, when the robbers arrived. While three of the men entered the bank, a fourth stood outside holding his gun. In Mrs. Logsdon’s words, “I knew I was covered.” She stood motionless until the car had pulled away, and then she went straight to the phone.

The robbers abandoned their stolen car on the Cartersville Road, a few miles from Paint Lick, but two of them weren’t able to elude the sheriff and his men for long. They were caught, and they went to prison on Mrs. Logsdon’s testimony.

Eventually the two robbers were out of prison. One day, Mrs. Logsdon was visiting with Mrs. Goodman in Dr. Goodman’s waiting room when who should walk in but one of the robbers. Mrs. Logsdon recognized him at once. While the three waited for the doctor to come in, Mrs. Logsdon cringed every time Mrs. Goodman said “Mrs. Logsdon,” but there was no obvious recognition by the robber.

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Paint Lick Bank (on the right) in recent years, with the building that housed Mrs. Logsdon’s general store on the left

Notice that “The Bank Robbery” does not get sidetracked with details about the Paint Lick telephone exchange, about who among the friends was the best croquet player, and about what the various village businesses looked like.  Other chapters in my mother’s memoir touch on those topics and tell readers about Mrs. Logsdon and Mrs. Goodman.  But in this chapter, all the details support the specific focus my mother chose for the scene.  The account is more than a series of facts and descriptions; it has a plot just as if it were a fictional story.  And so “The Bank Robbery” reflects beneficial use of a narrative arc.

Will incorporating a narrative arc help you to tell your story?  It’s worth considering.

Next: Nontraditional memoirs—letters