Answers to Frequently asked questions about “How to write a memoir”

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third entry in my series of answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Memoir Writing. These are some of the questions I hear about how to write a memoir.

Why does my past feel vague or ordinary?

As our days slip into the past, we toss the memories into the storage bins of mind where they grow dusty and tangled. As we look back on them in their disorganized state, naturally they look unkempt. In raw form, memories are merely a conglomeration, not a story.

When someone tells you about any event, whether a baseball game, a childhood memory, or a tour of duty on a battlefront, your interest will be generated as much by the shaping of the story as by the actual experience.

What turns life into Story?

To recreate your story, you root through the pile, pull out bits, line them up, and link them together. That is an introspective art, requiring frank exploration through old dreams and experiences. To create an interesting story from these parts, you need to develop storytelling skills by attending writing conferences and workshops, reading books about writing, and reading memoirs. Then practice, practice, practice.

Start to gather the events of your life into chronological order, and write the scenes as if you are there. Then look for the motivations and obstacles that caused you to solve problems and grow. When stirred in the right proportion, these ingredients create a magical potion to transport readers to an alternate reality.

How do successful authors improve the readability of their work?

All successful writers hone language skills to present readable prose that makes sense and keeps readers reading. Here are some of their ingredients:

—    Metaphors
—    Speculation about what others were thinking
—    Humor
—    Background material about the community and times

In addition to language arts, you will stimulate your readers’ emotions by using “emotional arts.” For example,

—    Guide the reader along lines of the protagonist’s desire
—    Offer glimpses of frustration or foreboding
—    Build up suspense before revealing solutions
—    Include only scenes that contribute to dramatic impact

Can I embellish scenes to make my story more interesting?

Memoir writers employ a variety of methods to make memories more readable. Some examples:

—    Combine several minor characters into one
—    Combine or prune repetitive incidents into one that represents the pattern.
—    Sharpen a scene by guessing at details, such as the color or style of clothing.
—    Invent specific dialog to convey the essence.

Depending on where you draw the border between truth and art, you might love these techniques or hate them. Since no governing body can dictate whether they are right or wrong, you must choose your own path. Whichever way you decide, you will explicitly state your contract with your reader in the front matter, explaining your attitude towards composites and accuracy.

Should I use flashbacks?

Once you understand the straight story, there are several reasons to modify the sequence:

—    Sneak backstory into a flashback.
—    Dive into the thick of things. Then rewind to the first event. – “In medeas res”
—    Bounce back and forth between two characters’ points of view
—    Essays follow the logic of ideas, not a chronology of events.

If you see a perfect opportunity to write out of order, take it. But if you want to keep it simple and straightforward, that’s okay too.

Other answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Memoir Writing

Frequently Asked Questions about Published Memoirs

Frequently asked questions about “Should I write a memoir?”

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

5 thoughts on “Answers to Frequently asked questions about “How to write a memoir”

  1. Good tips, Jerry! I think a lot of people struggle with how to make their story stand out… And one addition here might be, make sure you have a story that’s unique, one that’s worth telling — because that will make it easier to write! Keep these tips coming 🙂

  2. Hi Alexis, Thanks for your comment and praise. This issue of having an interesting story is true, of course. The story has to be unique and engaging if anyone is going to read it. However, since I’m a people junkie, all I really require in that regard is that people tell me a good story. My favorite example is Haven Kimmel’s “A Girl Named Zippy” in which she explains her ordinary life in such fascinating terms that I would follow her anywhere. Gary Presley’s “Seven Wheelchairs” was about a guy stricken by polio who spent his life in a wheelchair. It wasn’t a great story until he made it so. Leslie Morgan Steiner was one of the legion of women who survived an abusive marriage. It became a great story when she wrote “Crazy Love.” Before you start looking at your life, you might think it’s “too normal.” But as you go deeper, and understand the dramatic tension, you find within your normalcy all the intense, universal drama of the human condition. Best regards, Jerry

  3. Your post is filled with great advice, Jerry. Your words got me to thinking…

    In your first response, you wrote: “interest will be generated as much by the shaping of the story as by the actual experience.” This is so true. That’s actually the art of the memoir or storytelling process. And I love your description of the writer/storyteller rooting through the bits and pieces of personal history. You’re right, too, that writing conferences can provide help, teaching how to write dialogue, sensory detail, how to plot a story, and even the business side (marketing, blogging and selling).

    I respectfully disagree, however, that one can teach storytelling. This is a long-standing discussion I’ve had with writing friends…especially these days as my co-author Matilda Butler and I get closer to finishing our book Writing Alchemy. I believe writing workshops, coaches and editors can all make a writer (storyteller) a better, more professional, more creative communicator–all the things you talk about here. However, the basic ability to weave a story, that is either an innate part of one’s DNA or it’s missing all together. I don’t think anyone can teach the aspiring fiction writer to be imaginative enough to tell a story. But he/she can be taught to communicate a story better.

    Now memoir might be a bit different. Probably everyone (except amnesiacs) can tell the story of their lives. I’m not sure, however, that everyone can tell those stories in forms that are worthy of memoir because they they don’t think that way. These people could be taught about flashbacks and how to honestly and effectively combine or conflate stories to create a story, but can they actually execute the work? Ah, that is the question.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts. Also, if I might, I’d like to share information about an online writing class Matilda and I are teaching through Story Circle Network. We help put writers in CONTROL of their writing (giving them power over the events and the writing techniques). This is the precursor to a book we’re writing, also called Writing Alchemy. We’ve seen our students’ work improve dramatically after just one session. Writing Alchemy is not another writing technique. It’s more like a methodology or tool that we sometimes call PRE-writing as opposed to RE-writing. More information here (class begins April 1):

    Thanks for this excellent post, Jerry.

  4. Hi Kendra,

    Thanks for all the accolades. I’m glad you see value in the post. Dear lord, I work hard on these things, so I hope they are making sense to readers!! Thank you!

    Well, I am sure there are two schools of thought about whether or not people can learn to tell stories. And you are entitled to your perspective. Therapists and memoir readers are always striving to see the world through other people’s eyes, so if that’s the way you see the world, I respect it.

    Let me say a couple of things about why I think one can learn to tell stories. One is that I have pretty much taught myself how to tell stories. I grew up in a non-story-telling household, and mainly studied math and physics in college. I didn’t start learning storytelling until my early fifties, and I am sure I have been making huge strides, and having fun in the process.

    Two, when Chinese children don’t know math, they are told they have not worked hard enough and need to work harder. When American children are not good in math, they are told they have genetic problems and shouldn’t try. I guess I prefer the Chinese idea.

    Three, in the mid-nineties, scientists discovered that brains can grow and learn and change. So whoever we were before (neurologically speaking) can be changed through attention, focus, passion, learning. In fact, this suits me perfectly. I love lifelong learning, and now scientists have a word for it. Neuroplasticity means I can change my brain and develop myself along lines of my choosing, if I’m willing to work long and hard towards my goals.

    Thanks for letting us know about your memoir classes. Every aspiring memoir is another step towards understanding ourselves and each other.

    Best wishes,

  5. I have no doubt that some people are inherently better at the magic of telling stories, but I know from my own experience that it is an acquirable, teachable skill. I have friends locally and elsewhere who teach story telling (not writing — TELLING) quite successfully.

    In my experience, it’s the same as the difference between *performing* music and *playing* it. Few people understand that difference and think it’s the same thing. No. It is not. For seven years I performed music in the sense of *executing* instructions printed on a page full of clefs. Much of the time it sounded as if I were *executing* it too. Ultimately I was selected to play a string bass solo for Baccalaureate services for my high school class. The piece was so difficult it took me several months to master it. I’d already been awarded a blue ribbon after playing it for a music festival, and played it again as the featured solo during an orchestra concert. Those performances had been agonizingly stressful. I struggled through them. Still, for reasons that will soon fill a book, I persisted a third time.

    That night, in front of several hundred people, I discovered what it means to PLAY music. As the first notes poured forth, the concerto took on a life of its own. It flowed from my bow and my fingers danced over the strings. My spirit soared to the top of the auditorium and floated above the crowd. I relaxed into the music and let it carry me along. It was brilliant. It was also my last performance. As life turned a corner, music fell into the background. Today, I occasionally pull out my wooden recorder or Irish flute and *play* a little music, just for myself. I’ve been told by a few people who overheard me that it’s beautiful to listen to.

    Yes, I believe in magic. The magic of story and inspiration, and allowing our souls to soar. I think we are born knowing how to play and tell stories, but these early inclinations are quickly squelched as we are taught to “tell the truth,” to “write grammatically” and to avoid sour notes. Our well-developed Inner Critics kill playfulness.

    Story telling is a right brain function, and story crafting happens on the left. Whole person stories involve both. Just like Jerry, I’m so grateful I rediscovered my right brain!

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