Writing Your Memoir: Giving the Whys and Wherefores

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We can help others and inspire ourselves by looking back–at the end of a day, an era, a life.

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.

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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. . . .)

santa-maria-della-spina.jpg
Santa Maria della Spina

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.

(or)

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.

Zanzare Heaven
My room in the monastery

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:

Scuola-Friends
Classmates at the language school

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.

(or)

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.

Albergo Clio
My room at the Albergo Clio

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. 

(or)

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.

(or)

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.

Include dialogue:

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.

(or)

Asked why Italian women are so strong, Annamaria responds, “Because we have to handle Italian men!”

(or)

As I walk around Pisa, I whisper, “I’m so happy; I’m so happy; I’m so happy.”

Arno, Pisa, with Santa Maria della Spina
Arno River, Pisa

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.

(or)

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.

La Pausa 2
At the Bar Sapori

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.

 

Next: Writing even if you “can’t write”

Writing Your Memoir: Sharing the Truth

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.

Mother and Daddy's Wedding
Mason Hayek and Doris Burgess Hayek

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.

The Three of Us, 1951

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?

WH outside French House
At college on one of the many happy days

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.

 
Next: Finding the meaning in the facts

Writing Your Memoir: Getting Started

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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?
    My Parents, Age 1
    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. . . .
    Mother and her bread
    My mother, Doris Burgess Hayek, made the best bread!
  • Instead of writing nonfiction, you might write a novel or a collection of short stories based on your life. Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald), David Copperfield (Charles Dickens), and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (James Joyce) are three classic examples of autobiographical novels.
  • 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.
  • Consider telling your story in free verse, as Jacqueline Woodson does in Brown Girl Dreaming.
  • Photographs can be the driving force for your memoir, with each photograph followed by the story it evokes.
    Daddy as a boy with friends
    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.

The Three of Us behind the Flowers
 

This photograph of my parents and me has always sparked happy feelings and memories for me.  The double exposure adds to the photo’s appeal.

 

Pick another topic and keep going.

If you get stuck, go back to the StoryCorps or New York Times questions (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!

Next: Sharing the truth

What Is It Like Being You?

An Introduction to Memoir Writing

Paint Lick Cover
My mother’s memoir

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.

Ruth and Doris Burgess
My mother and her older sister

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.

Next: Getting Started