I entered college in 1965 as a bold young man, competent and smart, ready to take on the world. But those were the riot years, the time of the counterculture, during which I turned my attention to unraveling everything I believed. By the time I left college in 1969, I had been reduced to a mere shadow of myself, clinging to sanity by a thread.
After years of reconstruction, talking to a therapist, meditating, and writing in a journal, I once more entered the human race. But no matter how much I matured, I never stopped wondering what lessons lay hidden within the murky memories of my Coming of Age.
Then in 2004, I stumbled on a cultural trend that could help me make sense of those chaotic years. Bestselling memoirs invited readers into the messy process of growing up. Each author converted the chaos of memory into the compelling narrative of a good story. I wanted to try it for myself.
This goal at first seemed farfetched. I was not a story writer, and I could barely remember those troubled years. How would I ever describe the intricate feelings, thoughts and events that took me on that journey to nowhere?
Despite the seeming impossibility of the task, I didn’t think there would be any harm in trying. So I joined a writing group and quickly learned that to write a memoir, I needed to follow three habits.
Habit One. When I remembered even a vague incident, I wrote it. And in the act of forming sentences, I transformed hazy memories into descriptions in a computer file. These written snips helped me penetrate the fog that had shrouded my past. I was finding my words.
Habit Two. I shared my anecdotes with fellow writers in a critique group. Their comments about my pieces radically shifted my thoughts about myself. My past emerged from hiding and became an experience I could share with strangers. When I saw my life in other people’s eyes, it wasn’t so awful after all. It was actually kind of interesting.
Habit Three. I read memoirs and fell in love with the intimacy of sharing an author’s interior journey. After reading each book, I lingered and tried to learn how the author had transformed life into a story.
I repeated these three habits over and over: writing anecdotes, listening to reactions from fellow writers, and reading memoirs. I read so many memoirs, and found the phenomenon of turning life into stories so pervasive that I dubbed the phenomenon the Memoir Revolution. After I established my blog, I started to interview authors. I was continually surprised by the consistency in their answers. They were all learning about themselves at the same time as they were constructing their memoirs.
After several years, I felt satisfied by my collection of anecdotes. This completed Stage One. But I had reached a plateau. It was not yet a real story and I doubted that I would ever be able to make it as compelling as the ones I enjoy reading. Despite my fears, I kept researching, and soon discovered three rules that would convert my anecdotes into a story.
Rule One. Readers enter stories through well-constructed scenes. So I had to learn how to construct scenes. For example, instead of saying “I was in a riot,” I needed to write what I saw, heard, and felt. “Hundreds of us jammed into the hallway, defiantly blocking the passageway. Then the crash of breaking glass shattered our confidence. Screams filled the air as the police poured through the opening, striking students with long clubs. The role reversal shook me to the core. These were police. They were supposed to protect us. I turned and ran.” Writing scenes forced me to see myself through a reader’s eyes.
Rule Two. Sort memories into chronological order. When the past only lives in random memories, the various incidents remain fragmented. For example, every time I remembered the riot, I felt trapped in the horror of that troubling day. But when I sorted my anecdotes into chronological order, the end of each scene led to what happened next, turning the confusing past into the bones of an orderly and increasingly compelling narrative.
Rule Three. A story’s hero strives toward an important mission. For example, in mysteries, the detective’s mission is to identify the murderer. But what was the compelling mission in my memoir? If I could define what my character really wanted, I would gain two things. For the reader, I would create a good story. For myself, I would create a better understanding of my own path.
After years of applying these three rules, I finished Stage Two: a manuscript. Woohoo. It was an awesome accomplishment, but I doubted that the resulting book would compel a stranger to turn pages to the end. To complete my task, I had to learn the art and craft of leading readers through struggles toward hope.
To proceed to Stage Three, I hired an editor to improve the technical craft of the book. Based on her detailed recommendations, I revised the entire book. Then, I sent the results to readers, asking them if they could immerse themselves in the story. And more importantly, what did they find missing? Some of them said they read it straight through. A few even said they couldn’t put it down. When they told me about missing details, places that dragged or unanswered questions, I revised some more and sent it to other readers. After a final round of edits from my editor, it was ready for the world. (Click here to buy it.)
Before I started writing, all I knew about my long journey to hell and back was contained in murky, disturbing memories. By writing, I knitted bits and pieces of myself together and changed the past from an incoherent jumble into a compelling story with a hopeful end. This perspective enabled my readers to stay engaged in the story and helped me make peace with the person I had been.
So now you know my story. Well, you don’t know the story of my descent into hell and my climb out. That’s described in detail in my book. Rather you know the story of how I created that book.
And I hope you might be able to apply that story to your own life. What experiences of yours remain hidden, perhaps even from you? What recollections could reveal meaning, lessons, or help you become clearer about the past?
By following three habits –write, share, and read– you will turn vague memories into a collection of anecdotes and essays. That’s the first stage. And by applying the three rules – build compelling scenes, sort them into chronological order, and follow the hero’s purpose — you can create a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. That’s the second stage.
If you choose to go all the way to the third stage and turn your memories into a publishable memoir, you will be able to share yourself with readers through this universal system called Story. And by immersing yourself in the meaning of your own life, you’ll discover that sharing stories is more important than you may have realized.
Since the beginning of civilization people have looked to stories to show us the way. In the old days the heroes of those stories were mythological and lived on mountains. In the modern age, we look to each other in order to learn how to climb those mountains. By writing your memoir, you can show the rest of us how you found the best elements of yourself. Your example will encourage and support us on our own search for truth.
This mission to write your story may be scary at first. Perhaps like me you’ll even think it’s farfetched. But there’s no harm in starting. Like any hero, once you enter the land of the adventure, you will face the unknown. With courage, persistence, and effort, you will travel one of the most interesting creative journeys of your life.
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.
To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.