by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
After I enjoy reading a memoir, I think carefully about the impression it made on me. That for me is the payoff. What do I actually remember about this journey through a writer’s life? Usually, the chapters fade into the background. They provided forward momentum without calling attention to themselves. However, in some memoirs, they jump out and warrant a closer look. I’ve already raved about the power of Slash Coleman’s intriguing and creative approach to character arc in Bohemian Love Diaries. Now, I want to rave about the remarkable power he packs into his chapters. Each smaller unit pops with energy, and yet they all hang together to create a larger whole.
Slash Coleman’s journey comes alive with vivid images like his childhood pressure to find his half-Jewish identity, his desperate need to discover his artistic expression, and his series of passionate attempts to find a mate. I believe these pressures stand out so vividly in my memory, not because he had better adventures than other people (although he did have some doozies. His experiences sound so compelling because he turns experience into powerful stories.
Until now, I have mainly focused on the power of the overall arc of each memoir. Bohemian Love Diaries reminds me to pay more attention to the power contained within chapters. These smaller units of suspense are crucial for holding a reader’s attention.
When I first started writing my memoir, I couldn’t imagine how I would ever develop a compelling story. At first, my memories felt like a disorganized pile of bits and pieces. Gradually, my sequence of anecdotes took shape. Some chunks were obvious, like when I graduated high school in Philadelphia and went to college in Wisconsin, or when I moved to Berkeley, California to try and become a hippie. As my sequences of scenes turned into autobiographical segments, I noticed subtler demarcations. A relationship. An artistic dream. A shift in career. A search for meaning. How could I turn these life pressures into strong arcs that shape chapters?
Slash Coleman offers an important clue on his website, where he lists himself as a professional storyteller. He stands in front of people and tells stories. For example check out his excellent TedX talk about the power of storytelling. As a story performer, he has the benefit of trial and error. If he doesn’t get the expected laugh, murmur or softening eyes, he has to tyr something else.
I know about this process from the excellent memoirs Born Standing Up Steve Martin and Enter Talking by Joan Rivers. These comedians both started their careers knowing they wanted to entertain audiences. To learn their craft, they had to stand up and try. Their listeners’ feedback provided constant course corrections that led these two performers to incredible success.
Memoir writers too can improve by listening to their audiences. Consider the fabulous success of Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s first memoir. The blockbusting bestseller helped launch the Memoir Revolution. In McCourt’s later memoirs Tis and Teacher Man he explains that he spent a lifetime as a high school teacher, telling his students about his childhood experience. Years of audience feedback taught him the art of telling his life.
Slash Coleman’s performances provided him with some of the same storytelling firepower. Reading his book felt like sitting in the audience watching him perform it. In segment after segment, he ends with a punch. And then, as I imagine listening to the ending of the book, I feel like I’m in a hushed audience, waiting and watching as he wraps up the whole thing.
You don’t need to stand in front of a live audience to learn if you’re on the right track. For example, memoir writer John Grogan tells of a related technique that helped him create his bestseller Marley and Me. Grogan was a newspaper columnist, paid to look for a story every week. Not only did he develop the knack of finding the story in everyday life. He also learned what stories his readers enjoyed by checking the newspaper’s letters and phone calls to the editor.
During the early stages of converting memories into stories, we’re too close to our material. Telling stories to families rarely helps. Families know the characters and hear the same stories repeated in the same way for years. Stories told at the dinner table sound out of place in public. We need to gain some distance, and the best way to do that is to learn how we sound to strangers.
A good way to gain this perspective is to seek feedback from a critique group. Online groups are excellent for this. Their anonymity helps participants give honest responses. Face to face critique groups add intimacy, letting you look critiquers in the eye and see how they felt about the piece. Sharing your work in a critique group teaches you what kind of impression your story makes on readers. Was there enough conflict? Were there surprises? Did the tale pull the reader into the incident or chapter?
Another way to reach readers is to develop a blog. Even if at first you have no readers, writing the blog will let you see yourself as a performer. When the comedian Steve Martin was starting his career, he went on stage and looked out to an empty restaurant. The manager told him to perform anyway, explaining that when people passed by and saw him performing, it would draw them in. Bloggers do this all the time. Without reassurance that anyone will read our work, we persist, using our imaginary audience to help us focus our writing.
So to write your memoir, look at your growing list of anecdotes organized along a time line. Muse about which segment might create the heart of that eternal story-sequence: challenge, obstacles, resolution. When you find candidate, tack on a beginning that introduces the character’s dramatic tension, and a conclusion that resolves it. Then look for an audience. See how it feels to tell it. See what sorts of responses you receive.
The feedback strengthen your storytelling sensibility enabling you to tighten each chapter and gain a compelling sense of the overall structure. Eventually, you will have a book that makes sense to readers, converting a lifetime into a story worth reading.
Bohemian Love Diaries by Slash Coleman
Click here for an article about John Grogan’s Marley and Me
For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.