To write a memoir, you must evolve from someone who randomly remembers bits of life to someone who purposely turns them into a story. This shift is revolutionary.
Picture yourself as one of those travelling storytellers who come to the local library. With dramatic voice and exaggerated gestures, they establish rapport with their wide-eyed audiences. Sometimes these charismatic tellers dress in costume or paint their faces to help usher their listeners into an altered state. That primal relationship between teller and listener evokes images of aboriginal rituals, in which the roots of courage and identity are told around campfires. Storytellers hold an almost mythic place in our collective imagination.
All memoir writers attempt to inhabit that sacred space. When we translate our mundane memories into the magical language of stories, we gradually come to realize that these details are, in fact, the stuff of life itself, overflowing with universal, idealistic, and glorious principles. It’s the storyteller’s job to reveal the universal contained within the mundane.
So the journey to write your memoir is not simply looking backward to remember the past. You also look forward to your own creative metamorphosis, to deepen your skills as a culture warrior, as an innovative truth teller, as an interpreter of the daily grind, and a hero of the long view.
When you first remember the facts of your life, the sequence might sound flat. When you add emotional swirls, you offer a more humanized view. As your collection grows, you increasingly visualize a story, and begin to imagine how to lead your future readers on the journey storytellers have been leading you since your parents read you the first tale. From that vantage point, you transform the bits of life into a link between one individual and all of humanity.
Bestselling memoir authors like Frank McCourt have climbed into that ethereal space at the pinnacle of civilization. He spent years as a school teacher, telling stories to his students in order to keep them entertained. From that experience, he gained the skill to write a best selling memoir.
John Grogan spent years as a newspaper columnist, scanning the world for a good story. Thanks to the skill he developed at work, he transformed the family dog into the world famous star of Marley and Me.
Dani Shapiro has written something like nine books, four of them memoirs. In her latest bestseller she mentions that she has done thousands of readings to audiences all over the world. What better way to inhabit the sacred space of storyteller than to see the faces of your listeners as you tell them your story?
These extraordinary individuals achieved expertise, but how about people like me? I had been shy most of my life, and had almost no practice telling a story about anything, let alone myself.
During the years it has taken me to learn to write my story and teach others how to find theirs, I have become increasingly aware that we all have storytelling burned deep in our souls. And so, becoming a storyteller is a journey to discover what you already contain.
Of course, with practice you will develop literary microskills, such as scene building, chapter construction, and character development. But the most important skill of all is your willingness to inhabit the role of a storyteller. Like much of the memoir writer’s journey, it requires that you reach higher than you thought possible.
You can only achieve that goal when you believe in your ability to do so. Like Tinker Bell tells Peter Pan, he can fly if he believes. So can you!
Trusting in your ability to stay in a storytelling frame of mind will help you write a strong story that will sustain an emotional connection with your future readers. And after the memoir is complete, you will have grown from your effort to see life as a story.
While I can urge you to find your own storytelling knack, I can no more teach it to you than Tinker Bell could teach Peter how to fly. Once you realize that it’s attainable, you will embark on the adventure yourself. And like all storytellers you will eventually return from that adventure and tell us what you found.
Linda Joy Myers, another champion of the storytelling knack is hosting me for a discussion about this topic. As president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, she has been encouraging people to follow a similar path, for years. Together we will explore the vantage point of the storyteller, and offer tips that help you achieve it.
The session, typically for members only, has been opened up to anyone. And if you can’t make it to the live interview, you will be able to listen later.