Pictures can be profoundly evocative and so may have an important role in telling your story. They will ignite your own memories, capture your readers’ imagination, and add to your readers’ knowledge and understanding.
Photographs carefully ordered and presented with explanatory captions could, by themselves, create a meaningful memoir. And if you have artistic skills, you might tell your story in part or wholly through drawings and paintings. More often, photographs and artwork are a captivating adjunct to a story told in words.
In his memoir Growing to 80, my father, Mason Hayek, makes extensive use of his drawings to help communicate his history. In some sections, the drawings carry most of the weight. More often, my father’s drawings, as well as photographs, supplement his prose and poetry.
Examples from Growing to 80 may give ideas of how you can use artwork and photographs to tell your story.
This drawing of my father’s boyhood home and his caption introduce us to his parents and to the setting for his childhood:
The drawing here shows our house, 317 Superior Street (formerly Yankee Street), St. Paul. Mother and Dad bought a cottage at this address shortly after their marriage, in 1904. Dad then enlarged the house in 1922 to that shown here, using his skill in carpentry and bringing much of the material for the alteration on his bicycle.
Including photographs such as this one, which is of my father’s parents, also adds interest and depth to the memoir—and helps to ensure the photos’ preservation even if the originals are eventually lost:
Frank Hayek and Eugenia Lydon Hayek
In addition to photographs of people and places, the chapters about my father’s Minnesota boyhood include pictures of artifacts such as school documents, a letter to Santa that my father wrote when he was seven, and cards that he made for his mother:
In my father’s memoir, drawings help him convey some of the experiences he had while visiting the Kentucky village where my mother, Doris Lynn Burgess Hayek, lived until she was a young adult:
Doris’s friends from Paint Lick and nearby towns have remained her lifelong friends. I’m grateful that I have been accepted as a friend by Doris’s friends, and I feel bonds to them. Among these friends was Elizabeth Coy, who is now gone. Below is my pen-and-ink drawing of her home, located in Richmond, Kentucky.
My father introduces a section called “Northern Scenes” this way:
During parts of the years when Winnie was in camp in Maine, Doris and I vacationed at “David’s Folly,” a salt-water farm that had been converted to an inn by Minerva Cutler. The enjoyable times in David’s Folly were augmented by drives to Blue Hill, Stonington, and Castine and by walks to nearby woods and the beautiful coves, inlets of Penobscot Bay. Enchanting scenes were everywhere, subjects for drawing. Then during the years that Winnie lived in Maine and Massachusetts, Doris and I visited her many times, and we three enjoyed the scenery of the New England states.
Then he shares numerous drawings, such as this one:
Penobscot Bay cove, West Brooksville, Maine
The section also has this photograph:
Mason Hayek sitting by Penobscot Bay
My father’s prose and poetry are captivating in themselves, but his drawings and photographs add dimensions that cannot easily be communicated in words.
What visual elements are available to you to help you tell your story?
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.
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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
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.
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.
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.
Do you tell yourself, “I’m just not a writer—I didn’t get that gift”? Do you say, “I don’t know grammar”? Have you concluded, “Writing comes easily for other people, but not for me”?
If feelings like these discourage you from writing a memoir, this post is for you. I hope it will also include some useful tips for more confident writers.
No matter how little confidence you have as a writer, know that you have what it takes to write a meaningful memoir.
The most essential part of writing is having something to say. And if you’re planning to write about your life—your experiences and perceptions—you absolutely qualify. Yes, knowing the rules of grammar and punctuation is useful, but good writing comes from having something worth saying and then finding the means to say it effectively.
For the first draft of your work, focus on getting all of your ideas down—not on spelling, punctuation, and other style issues.
Remember: there’s nothing wrong with a chaotic, error-filled first draft as long as it doesn’t become the final draft. (Once you have a fully developed draft of your memoir, then it will be time to turn to organizing your content and improving your sentences and paragraphs.)
For your first draft, write with wild abandon so that you get down everything you want to say.
Some people express themselves more easily orally than in writing. If this description fits you, you may want to draft your book by first talking into a recorder. Transcribing the recordings will take a lot of time but can be rewarding. In the course of transcribing your recordings, you will find yourself making small revisions that strengthen and clarify the content.
If you’re horrified by the thought of transcribing hours of recordings, you may wish to consider purchasing speech-to-text software. Speech-to-text software—Dragon NaturallySpeaking is a popular choice—allows you to speak into your computer through a microphone and have your words appear in your document. In addition to “training” the software to recognize your voice patterns, you will need to review your document thoroughly to correct any errors.
Once you have the content for your memoir, give your memoir the careful editing attention it deserves.
As you revise your work, remember your goal: to let your readers put themselves in your place and experience what you have experienced, feel as you have felt, and understand what you have known.
Bookmark an online grammar and punctuation guide and then refer to it when you are unsure of a rule. A comprehensive choice is the Online Grammar Guide.
One of the best style manuals continues to be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which, with updates, has been around for 100 years. I suggest buying a copy of The Elements of Style (available on Kindle for $.99) and reading it from cover to cover.
Your style considerations should include these:
When a sentence becomes long and difficult to comprehend, consider breaking it into two (or more) sentences. Short sentences are generally more reader friendly than very long sentences.
Break up dauntingly long paragraphs.
Use commas and other punctuation for clarity. For example, by reading aloud what you’ve written, you will often be able to see where a comma is needed. (Which is it: “Let’s eat Jonah before we go,” or “Let’s eat, Jonah, before we go”?) Be consistent in your choices: Don’t write “the dog, the cat, and the man” (comma before “and”) one time and then write “the hat, the shirt and the suit” (no comma before “and”) the next.
Be especially careful of your pronoun usage. Follow prepositions with object pronouns (her, him, me, us, them): He gave it to Jon and me (not “to Jon and I”!).
To work out the most effective wording and to check the clarity of your prose, read aloud what you have written. Another choice is to install a screen reader and listen to your written work as you follow along. A free screen reader can be downloaded from NaturalReader.
After doing your best to revise and improve your memoir, you may choose to ask friends and family to read your work to find unclear passages, typos, and other problems you have overlooked.
Improve your writing by writing. Keeping a journal, for instance, is a useful way both to practice your writing and to develop possible topics for a memoir.
If you want to read others’ ideas about how to improve the quantity and quality of your writing (but remember that you are the best judge of what and how you should write), you could read some of the books on the interesting and comprehensive list “Best Books for Writers,” from Poets & Writers, a website that is filled with resources. The site is well worth exploring, as is Poets & Writers magazine. The magazine is available in digital and print editions; see the Poets & Writers site for details.
You may find it useful to join or establish a writers’ group. Sharing your work in progress with other writers can be encouraging and inspiring. I suggest looking for a group that stresses honest positive feedback of this type: “I especially like your use of ___ ,” or “I think your portrayal of ___ works well,” or “I’d like to hear even more about___.” Most members of writers’ groups, no matter how skilled, are not qualified to give negative feedback that is helpful, justified, and not discouraging. Too many writers who critique other writers are trying to turn the other writers into clones of themselves—or they’ve read a “rule” somewhere and imagine that any writer who violates it is absolutely, positively doomed.
If you think you can’t write, you are probably buying into the common myths about writing. These myths would have you wrongly believe that either you have it as a writer or you don’t. They would fool you into thinking good writers never struggle with their writing. And they would lead you to imagine that good writers put all the right words in the right order from the moment they set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Don’t let these myths fool you and convince you that your wonderful story has to stay locked inside of you. Bolster your courage and release your story into the world.
We humans write memoirs because we want to share important aspects of our lives. We want others to understand how the world has looked to us, how we have experienced life. But readers have trouble becoming drawn in by a memoir if the author simply writes down the unadorned facts. Travel memoirs are especially prone to staying at the level of travelogue—where the writer went and what he or she did—but any memoir can fall down in the task of showing the meaning behind the facts.
Even the most fascinating moments can be turned into dry reading material. I once knew a man who spent many weeks traveling through Europe and parts of Asia by bicycle. He sent accounts home, hoping they could be published. I’m sorry to say that my acquaintance excelled in making a thrilling journey sound dull.
I wanted to know who the people were whom he had met along the way, what their lives were like, how they had responded to my friend. I wanted to be able to see in my mind the scenery that had surrounded him as he rode. I wanted to know what he’d thought about as he journeyed, whether he was sometimes homesick or afraid. In short, I wanted to share his trip vicariously.
Instead, I found itineraries listing the cities and towns he’d traversed, accounts of the meals he’d consumed, and statistics about the length and geography of each day’s biking. All this was a start, but it didn’t rise to the level of consistently engaging. I could have looked in an atlas to get a sense of his route. I wanted to be able to find my friend within that route, but he was almost entirely absent.
I’ll share an example of the kind of writing I’m complaining about—writing that is fine for a first draft but does not yet engage the reader. Like any memoir writer, I write because I want others to see how and why elements of my life have mattered. This passage does not yet achieve that goal:
I went to Pisa for two weeks to study Italian in a language school. I stayed in a convent (in this case actually called a “monastery”) a few miles outside of town. My room was inexpensive, but there were a lot of mosquitoes.
The first morning (a Saturday), I didn’t like the breakfast. After breakfast, I walked into town, which took a long time. It was really hot. I climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa, ate lunch nearby, and walked almost all the way down to the train station so I’d know where my school was when Monday came.
Pisa is mostly famous for the Leaning Tower and the other buildings in the so-called “Field of Miracles,” but I liked the whole city a lot, especially the Arno River, the little church called Santa Maria della Spina, and the Tower of Famine, which is famous for a count who was imprisoned there during the Middle Ages and supposedly ate his sons and grandsons.
(And so on. . . .)
I can take this first draft and begin to pull in my readers. Here are some of the strategies I might use to help my readers understand what the facts I’m presenting mean to me, why they matter. I can . . .
Choose details that help to recreate a mood:
For the first week, I stay about three miles outside the city limits in the guest quarters of a monastery for nuns—the Monastero di Santa Maria madre della Chiesa e di San Benedetto. When I arrive, in the evening light I see the nuns, wearing long gray habits, strolling silently around a lush courtyard behind a high iron fence.
Just before total darkness, before the pink in the sky has completely faded, I hear the high, sweet voices of the nuns singing in their chapel.
Let the word choice convey an attitude:
The monastery-provided breakfast—yesterday’s was two small, bedraggled apples, coffee and milk served in thermoses, a basket of leftover rolls (one already half consumed), and a partly used package of cookies—won’t be available until 7:30, by which time I hope to be drinking tea in a bar near my language school.
Compare one experience to another:
Back home, I commute by car along the congested thirteen miles to work, passing several strip malls, fast-food restaurants, a couple of modern churches, and nondescript entrances to neighborhoods and apartment complexes. But in Pisa, rather than being a necessity to endure, the commute is essential to the experience.
Use pictures to aid the reader’s imagination:
Tell enough about an experience to let readers vicariously come along with me:
Just south of the piazza I find a bar for a pot of tea and a spinach omelet between thin layers of focaccia. I join the half-dozen men and women standing at the counter with their coffee and reading a newspaper or watching the television news on the set mounted on the wall. The morning-show hosts speak rapidly, and I can only get the gist of their words. Even on my first day of school, standing at the bar feels like a routine. And as out of place as tea seems in a nation of coffee drinkers, I will never find an Italian bar unable to supply a small pot, hot water, and a teabag for my tè caldo.
The second week of school, I move to the Albergo Clio, a one-star hotel on an alley near the south bank of the Arno. My sense grows of being a part of Pisa, of the ongoing life of the city. At night, as I do homework exercises or write in my journal, I love hearing dishes and silverware clattering in the neighbors’ kitchens, my neighbors. Teenage boys sit outside in the warm air and talk until midnight. A rock band practices. A miniature garbage truck faithfully, and noisily, collects trash at 6:15 every morning.
Tell what I like (or dislike) about an experience; directly state my feelings about something:
The best part of getting on the bus is the ordinariness of it, as if I do this every day.
The Leaning Tower is to me the most magical and captivating of all structures. Imagine passing it every day, a part of ordinary life! During my two weeks in Pisa, I will walk to the Tower daily to share time with it.
I am uncharacteristically calm and confident today. In Pisa, I find myself relishing the moments as they happen, with no desire to rush toward a more promising future. I stay inside the Pisan moments and savor the experience. I wasn’t nervous about walking into the school, announcing myself to Pier Luigi, and I’m not nervous about working my way through the test choices—the answers I know, those I think I might know, and those about which I haven’t a clue. I just rip along, not second-guessing myself or fearing the quality of my effort.
On the Monday of our second (and last) week together, Simon asks me, “Would you like to go to the bar for coffee during la pausa? Lots of people do.” Riding down on the rickety elevator with Simon and me, Jacek tells me, as if in warning, “I’m a priest.” Yes, I know. What does this fact matter, except to make the jolly company all the more interesting.
Asked why Italian women are so strong, Annamaria responds, “Because we have to handle Italian men!”
As I walk around Pisa, I whisper, “I’m so happy; I’m so happy; I’m so happy.”
Tell a story:
The taxi driver who stops for me has been having a bad day, to which I add. As I am getting in the taxi, I don’t think about the fact I am still wearing a small backpack. I bump the car a little with it, but the pack is soft. The driver says indignantly, “Per favore, signora!” I think he is kidding and chuckle, but he really is angry with me. I apologize, explaining that I’m tired. “You’re tired!” he says and launches into a tirade (in Italian) about how tired he is and how terrible it is for tourists like me to have so much baggage when millions of people are starving in the world. He has a point. I apologize again, say that I’m not a bad person and don’t want to hurt him or anyone, and explain about the strike and long trip. . . .
Directly state the effect on me of an experience or encounter:
In Pisa, I don’t change permanently, but I do change for as long as I remain in that Italian city.
I am older than most of my classmates. I am the only American. I am the only tea drinker, the only vegetarian. Back home, I have nearly always tried finding my place in a group by adjusting as needed to fit in. At the Istituto linguistico Mediterraneo, I find my place in the group by being myself. With my first pausa at the Bar Sapori, I join our ephemeral community as a full-fledged citizen, abandoning my role of observer from the sidelines. My usual shyness, giddiness, and exaggerated civility evaporate in the hot Tuscan air.
In other words:
If you think about what the facts of your life have meant and mean to you, and if you work to share this significance, you will probably end up presenting a meaningful account to your readers.
And remember that readers, too, have to do their share. They have a responsibility to try to put themselves in your place as they read about your experiences. For one thing, they need to tune in to the connotations (the emotional overtones) of the words you have chosen to use. For example, in a writers’ group that I attended, a participant complained that a writer in the group had not expressed her feelings about the events she had described. In fact, however, it was the critic who had missed the many cues, such as the writer’s referring to her teenager as her “baby boy” at a point in the story when she was worried about him. We knew from this word choice that she felt tenderly toward her son and was stressing his vulnerability.
So as you write, don’t let the need to include the “whys and wherefores” in your memoir become a burden and undue challenge. Simply do your best to help readers understand not only what happened but also why the scenes you are describing matter, especially to you.
Some people hesitate to write a memoir because they fear hurting or angering people who would appear in the memoir. Another barrier to writing can be a reluctance to revisit or reveal painful memories. These are valid concerns—and ones to which writers respond in different ways. In this article, I’ll mention a few of the issues involved and tell you a little about my own decisions concerning them.
Life’s meaningful experiences, both the blessed and the terrible, usually involve others. A memoir writer’s relationships with others are generally at the heart of the most inspiring and fascinating elements in the author’s story. And so if you write a memoir, there is no way around making decisions on what to tell about your family, friends, and acquaintances and how to handle potentially hurtful details concerning them.
My parents, Doris Burgess Hayek and Mason Hayek, left partially completed memoirs and extensive additional written and oral accounts of their lives. In editing their memoirs (Paint Lick and Growing to 80) for publication, I wrestled with questions about naming names. Almost all of the people who found their way into my parents’ memoirs are deceased, so libel was not a concern, but possibly hurting folks was. Because the memoirs are historical records of their time and place, I kept names unless I felt a portrayal could clearly be hurtful to the person’s children, grandchildren, or other descendants. For example, names I omitted included those of a well-to-do shopkeeper who stole money from my grandfather, a teacher who slapped my aunt so hard she left a hand print on her face, and an annoying young minister who lived next door to my mother and her family.
In my own memoir, A Woman in Time, and in my memoir writing that finds its way onto my blog, I usually use real names only in the case of my family. (And to disguise someone, changing a name may not be enough. Additional changes may be necessary, adjustments that protect an identity while not violating the essential truth of the story being told.) I am blessed to have had a deeply loving family and profoundly admirable parents. For writers whose harshest life challenges emerge from their relationships with their family members, much more difficult choices than I have faced have to be made about what to tell and how to express hard realities.
Before you begin writing, however, you don’t need to make all of your decisions on what to include about the people in your life. I recommend first drafting your story as fully and freely as you are comfortable doing. Then, before publishing it (online, as an e-book or audiobook, or in print), you can carefully edit your work to address all legal, ethical, and personal concerns. Avoiding libel is just one legal issue of importance to memoirists. Writers need to know the law, to ensure their own protection as well as the rights of others. One of many available resources is The Legal Guide for Writers, Artists and Other Creative People, by Kenneth P. Norwick. Whatever your decisions about sparing feelings and revealing truths, these decisions need to be filtered through the lens of the law.
While my challenges have not come from my loved ones, I’ve managed to create or otherwise jump into my share of unhappy times. The bad spells are part of the journey, the source of countless lessons, learned and unlearned. For some periods of my life, though, I simply don’t want to write about the darker moments. I haven’t forgotten them, and I honor what they’ve taught me about empathy and understanding and about self-reliance and courage. But I don’t necessarily want to put those experiences under the renewed, painstaking scrutiny that writing about them would require.
I do not feel compelled to obey each so-called “rule” from books and gurus claiming to hold the ultimate truths of memoir writing. The false edicts include commanding that memoirs include every gory, distressing, titillating (and so on) detail for every scene because these are what sell books, what readers want to read, and what writers must confront. Similarly, the false judgments opine that to leave out some of the distressing facts in a story is to display cowardice, dishonesty, and substandard writing.
My college years at the University of Delaware contained some of the dark moments to which I’ve alluded—bleak patches in my memory in which I don’t wish to linger. My undergraduate days are among the eras I’d like to explore further in writing, but not by including every detail (those bleak patches), even the ones that might be especially interesting to readers. I’m ashamed of some of my college moments, embarrassed by others. So how am I going to be honest about those years, writing about them in a way that brings insight to me and to any who might read what I have to say?
An answer came to me one morning when I found myself meditating on my college recollections. I relaxed into a peaceful trance and let the thoughts float past. As I meditated, I saw in my mind a glass-fronted curio cabinet. Instead of shelves, the cabinet had small compartments, perhaps four or five across and six down, to hold the special objects chosen for display. My subconscious was offering a useful symbol. The cabinet reminded me that I can write about the events and emotions I wish to exhibit, that I can create meaningful images and describe selected scenes without feeling the need to catalog each gruesome moment of my undergraduate career. As the cabinet symbol was telling me, I can share meanings without dragging out every single knickknack in my memory collection.
In other words, it’s not necessary to begin, “On the day before the start of freshman orientation, I moved into Sussex Hall and met my roommate.” Beginning that way, I’d quickly be off into territory I don’t want to revisit. It was hard enough to endure once, without reliving it. I don’t want to explain, for instance, why I saw To Sir, with Love four times and Barefoot in the Park three, sitting by myself in the movie theater on Main Street, or why I spent hours hiding in bathrooms and out-of-the-way nooks in the library and classroom buildings. Maybe such accounts would be more instructive—as excellent examples of what not to do—than the scenes I choose to share. But the point is that I don’t have to write about anything I don’t want to write about, and neither do you.
I, like you, am in charge of what I write and how I write it. Following the “rules” may possibly help you and me to please a publisher, but will it please us? I think, instead, we should follow the often-quoted advice of British author and literary critic Cyril Connolly: “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”*
* Cyril Connolly, The New Statesman, February 25, 1933.
My friend and I (on the left) make our purchases from the ice-cream man, about 1954.
Your story matters, and not just to you. If you have even a small urge to write about what you have seen and known, I encourage you to do so. Writing a book-length memoir is not as impossible a feat as it might seem. It grows one scene, chapter, or essay—one story within your story—at a time. And memoir writing offers enormous freedom in how you share your history and what you choose to tell.
Nevertheless, for most people, getting started on any writing project is a challenge—I know from personal experience, in spite of the almost eighteen years I spent as a speechwriter and all the years I taught English. And so I want to offer a few suggestions and strategies that may help you move from the desire to tell your story to a completed book that you can then self-publish or market to a traditional publisher.
Here’s a way to begin:
First come to grips with your reason or reasons for wanting to write a memoir.
Are you writing primarily for your children and grandchildren, so they will know more about their own family history?
In these photos, my parents, Doris Burgess Hayek and Mason Hayek, are both about one year old (1918 and 1921).
Are you writing to share your era and experiences with a wide audience, to preserve the stories of a time and place that might be lost without your memoir?
Are you writing above all for yourself, to revisit some of the most important experiences, people, and places of your life and gain a clearer perspective on how you have become the person you are today?
Do you have an unusually dramatic and powerful story to tell, one that you think will interest a broad readership?
If you understand your audience and your reason or reasons for wanting to write, you will have an easier time getting underway, choosing what to include, and deciding how to present your story.
Draft a short description of the project that you would like to undertake and complete.Include the time frame you want to cover (Your entire life so far? Your childhood? The years you were married to ___? The last ten years? The years you lived in ___?). Also include the audience for whom you will be writing.
Choose a working title for your project and type or write it into place at the top of a new page. Now you are underway!
Collect photographs and documents that you would like to incorporate into your memoir or use as resource material. These will also serve as inspiration.
Consider the style or organizing principle for the memoir you plan to write. Here are a few possibilities. (I’ll be discussing some of the different approaches in more depth in future articles.) You can always change your mind and recast your memoir later, but picking an approach will help get you going:
Your memoir can read like a novel, with a strong narrative flow that builds to a climax and leads to some sort of significant insight, achievement, or change. Bestselling memoirs usually take this approach. My Life in France (Julia Child), A Long Way Home (Saroo Brierley), and The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls) are among the countless examples.
A flexible approach for many memoirists is to organize their book by topic areas, such as family members, neighbors and friends, community life, and schooldays. My mother’s memoir, Paint Lick, is organized this way. Countless variations on this approach are possible. Organizing topics for you to consider include, for example, the different places you have lived, your changing states of mind, the jobs you have held, odors that carry powerful memories (your grandmother’s perfume, your mother’s homemade bread, the lilacs that grew in your side yard, the chlorine in the pool where you loved to swim, and so on), the years with your various family pets, the phases of your creative life. . . .
My mother, Doris Burgess Hayek, made the best bread!
You could construct a memoir by writing a series of letters to important people in your life, or if you have saved many letters over the years, you might include excerpts from them and then expand on the stories they represent.
Photographs can be the driving force for your memoir, with each photograph followed by the story it evokes.
My father, Mason Hayek (in the middle), wrote about his schooldays in his memoir, Growing to 80.
If you are an artist or craftsperson, your creations not only can illustrate your memoir but also can assist in planning and organizing it. My father’s memoir, Growing to 80, is filled with his drawings, which help to tell his story.
If you are uncomfortable writing about yourself, you might try telling your story in the third person, as if you were writing about someone else. In La musica del silenzio (The Music of Silence), Andrea Bocelli calls himself “Amos”; instead of writing, “I did this,” he writes, “Amos did this,” or “He did this.”
A memoir can even be written in the second person. In other words, instead of saying, “I loved first grade,” the author would write, “You loved first grade.” Writing about oneself in the second person is unusual but offers the writer some distance and perspective as he or she relives and examines the past.
If you have been writing short pieces throughout the years, you can create a memoir by assembling a collection of your writings and then organizing them into a rough chronology or into topic areas that represent significant aspects of your life. My memoir, A Woman in Time, is of this type; it includes both prose and poetry.
Next, brainstorm a list of the possible topics you would like to cover in your memoir. If you need ideas, consult a list of writing prompts. The StoryCorps website includes an extensive list of questions to consider. Another good list of possible topics is the New York Times’ “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing,” also available to download as a PDF. The New York Times list is designed for students but has questions to inspire writers of any age.
Now jump in and start writing. You don’t need to begin at the beginning, just jump in anywhere with one of the topics on your list or with something else that comes to mind. You might pick a family photograph and write about it. Or tell about the classmate on whom you had a crush in the fourth grade. Or write a letter (that you won’t send!) to the hateful boss in your first job after graduation. Write everything you can think of on the topic you’ve chosen—writing off the top of your head, without worrying about the quality of your work. Just get everything down that you can. You can organize your memoir after you have plenty of material to organize.
Pick another topic and keep going.
If you get stuck, go back to the StoryCorps or New York Timesquestions (or to another collection of writing prompts). If you want, you can even draft your entire memoir using a question-and-answer technique: Write down a question, and then answer it. When you’re ready to edit and mold your book, you may decide to keep the question-and-answer format, or more likely, you’ll remove the questions, organize the answers, and add the transitions and explanations needed to make your memoir flow.
If your momentum stalls, take a break by tackling a different area of the project. For instance, try thinking about the design for your book: What dimensions will it have? What photo or photos do you want on the cover? Which photos and other materials do you have available to illustrate what you’ve already written? If you’ve handwritten your book draft so far, enter what you have into the computer. Don’t worry if your computer skills are a little shaky for a project of this size. I’ll be covering some relevant skills in later articles. Just do what you can.
And when you start hearing voices telling you your story isn’t worth sharing and your writing doesn’t measure up, stop listening and keep writing, no matter what!
Nobody else on the planet or in the history of time has lived the life you’re living. No one else has the same view out over the universe, feels exactly as you do, or understands the human experience with your unique perspective and insight. And so, the stories you have to share matter. They matter for readers whose stories resemble yours, for those who grew up in a different era or different social or cultural environment, and for the future. Your writing will help others to understand some of what it has meant to be you, living in your time and settings, in your body and soul.
Starting out to write a memoir can seem daunting. Instead of helping, books about memoir writing can be more discouraging than enlightening. Most memoir “gurus” stress making your story read like a novel, with an exciting plot that builds and builds and finally moves to a powerful conclusion. Yes, autobiographies and memoirs from people with dramatic life stories do most easily find traditional publishers and fame. But that fact doesn’t mean that our quieter life stories don’t have equal merit and importance and aren’t worth sharing. On the contrary, everyone’s story matters; every writer has the potential to share something of value. And the very process of writing memoirs can be powerfully meaningful to the writers themselves.
I’ll take this opportunity to explain the general distinction between an autobiography and a memoir. An autobiography chronicles a life, often from the writer’s earliest years to the time of the writing. In a memoir, the focus is less comprehensive and more thematic. Memoirs reflect on selected aspects of how it has been or is to be the author. For example, in my mother’s memoir, Paint Lick, the chapters are in generally chronological order, but instead of providing a complete history of her life, the book gives readers insight into how she experienced pivotal aspects of her childhood and young-adult years. These include her family, the village in which she grew up, her schooldays, the role of music and religion in her home, and so on. Autobiographies tend to be written by famous people. Memoirs are fertile writing ground for everyone.
This post begins a series of short articles about how to share your life on the page—whether you are writing for your family and friends, for your own satisfaction, or for readers around the globe. I’ll be debunking the myths that confuse and discourage too many would-be memoirists: the falsehoods that the ability to produce meaningful writing is a gift given only to the few, that there’s a set-in-stone format for each type of writing, that people with less than flashy lives can’t write interesting memoirs, that it’s overly egotistical to want to write about oneself, that memoirs must tell all (sparing no one and revealing every distressing detail), and so on. Getting rid of these misperceptions frees writers to write: to understand and reveal the meanings and moments that have mattered most to them.