Four More Writing Lessons from Reading a Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

To learn the knack of writing a memoir, it helps to read a lot of them. Their authors have spent hundreds (or, let’s face it, thousands) of hours pulling together the book, and the results of this effort are ours for the taking. But reading them is only the first step. If you enjoy the book, pull it apart, look for lessons and techniques, try to find ways to learn from their successes and even their failures, to help you in your own project. In my blog Memory Writers Network, I share many of the lessons I have learned from memoirs, and offer ways to apply those lessons to your own work. After reading Beth Kephart’s “Slant of Sun” I enjoyed it so much I kept turning up more and more lessons. Here are three more.

Embed an anecdote to deepen the meaning

She worries about the strain her obsession creates between her and her husband. Her musing turns into a general concern about the difficulty of one person devoting her life to a family. Then she describes the situation of a friend of hers, someone she admires. This friend was deeply committed to her family, and then suddenly walked out on them. Her abandonment raised all sorts of issues. How could this picture-perfect devoted wife and mother snap? What trouble was brewing under the surface? Why couldn’t she maintain her poise, and stay to support her family? This is more than a scene. It is an entire story, embellishing her fears about commitment with a technique similar to the play-within-a-play in Hamlet that Shakespeare uses for multiple purposes. It suggests a wonderful technique any memoir writer could use to make a point, or highlight an emotion.

Writing Prompt
In your memoir, look for deep issues. Brainstorm a story, anecdote, or book that moved you to think more deeply about this issue. Experiment with this story to see if you can share your insights with readers.

Exquisite use of an embedded backstory

Slant of Sun is about raising a child, so it quite rightly starts with his birth. But unless the author can sneak in some backstory, we don’t know anything about where she came from. It’s a common problem for memoir writers, and there is no simple or right solution. A straightforward flashback is possible, of course. Just flip the calendar back to a previous era. But this requires that the reader shift from the main timeline to a different one, and disturbs your precious pact to keep them involved.

There are other techniques. Consider one scene in which Beth Kephart uses a delicious strategy to tell about her earlier life while maintaining firm authorial control over the present. In the scene, a snowstorm traps her alone in the house with her son. She doesn’t want to leave him alone so she demands that he listen to a story. Then she starts to tell him about her younger years as an ice skater. The technique maintains plenty of tension in the “now” time frame, as Jeremy rolls his eyes and begs her to let him go, and her feeling more and more pressure to win his attention. And there is also plenty of tension in the “before” time frame as she tells a lovely, compelling story about her younger years.

Writing Prompt
Which parts of your early life could you sneak into a sentence here or there later in your book? Could you describe a situation similar to this one, when you were telling someone a story about that earlier time? Try to entertain the reader in both time frames by alternating the tension between the current drama and the earlier one.

A vivid secondary character

An assistant at Jeremy’s school took an especially compassionate interest in the little boy. Beth Kephart expressed her admiration for this man by slowing down and drawing him out. Just as the man crafted a wooden car for Jeremy, and offered it as a gift, with its finely polished buttery surfaces, the author returns the favor, and spends time lovingly polishing his profile. By focusing on him, she lets us savor his compassion for Jeremy.

Writing Prompt
Slow down and cherish one of your characters, bringing him or her to life with carefully crafted descriptions.

A crucial yet, almost invisible spouse

Her supportive husband doesn’t have many lines of dialog, and she doesn’t describe him much. He played a crucial role in their lives, yet he doesn’t step in front of the camera.

Writing Prompt
Beth Kephart’s treatment of her husband is a good example for anyone who is looking to tell their story without intruding on the privacy of loved ones.

In following blog posts I will continue the list of lessons that I drew from Slant of Sun and suggestions for you, as well.

Visit Beth Kephart’s Blog
Amazon page for “A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage” by Beth Kephart

Here are links to all the parts of my multi-part review of “Slant of Sun” by Beth Kephart and an interview with the author:

Use this memoir as a study guide: lessons 1 to 3

Lessons 4-5 from Beth Kephart’s Memoir, Slant of Sun

Four More Writing Lessons from Reading a Memoir

Memoir Lessons: Mysteries of emerging consciousness

Memoir Lessons: Moms, Quirks, Choices

Lessons from Kephart: Labels, Definitions, Language

Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond

Interview with Beth Kephart

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

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

3 thoughts on “Four More Writing Lessons from Reading a Memoir

  1. Thanks, Travelinoma. I enjoy offering them, and I’m glad to hear that you are happy on the other end. That’s what we writers do, throw words out there and wait to see if anything comes back. 🙂 Jerry

  2. Wow! jerry, I haven’t finished reading every page yet. The material you have provided is full of advice, discussion and writing prompts. There is a lot to chew and digest and absorb. Please keep it coming. These pages are a mirror to my own hurdles and the after-effect. I see my own reflection in those pages.
    Thank you!

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