This post originally appeared on the Nonfiction Authors Association’s blog on March 4 2019.
We all have a story buried somewhere within the years of our tumultuous lives. Each story contains a lesson to share, a perspective to enlighten, or an anecdote to entertain. I encourage everyone to pull that story out from the corners of your memories and onto the page, so that others can learn from it.
Reflecting on the process of writing Mad Like Me, I came up with these tips for you to write your own memoir. I am also running a free interactive workshop about memoir-writing at the Baie-D’Urfé Library on Wednesday, June 26, 2019 at 2pm, if you live in the area and would like to participate.
A quick definition before we begin: Memoir is a genre of non-fiction written from personal knowledge in the first person (unlike a biography which is researched and written by someone else, in the third person) about an era or period of one’s life (unlike an autobiography which usually spans an entire lifetime).
Ask: Do I have a unique story to tell and/or message to share? (If not, maybe you could invest your time and energy elsewhere?) In my case, for example, I wrote my memoir Mad Like Me: Travels in Bipolar Country to help break the stigma against bipolar disorder and mental illness in general.
Which sub-genre of memoir are you planning to write? Travel, adventure, family, romance, career, spirituality, grief, addictions, health, mental illness, or what? Read as many examples of other memoirs within that sub-genre as you can, so you can write knowing “what’s already out there.”
Ask: What is my main goal in writing this memoir? Catharsis? Personal healing? Vengeance? To set the record straight? To shock? To entertain? To educate? Or what?
Depending on your answer to the previous question, dig deeper by asking: Is writing a memoir the best possible means to achieve my goal? For example, it might be more effective for you to seek counselling. Or to re-write your will, omitting certain people as heirs!
2. Gather resources
If your memoir is going to refer to past events (e.g. memories from your childhood), you will need to find reliable source materials (e.g. photos, letters, diaries, school yearbooks, agendas, reflections by family members) to jog your memory and help you write with as much clarity, authority and earnestness as possible.
On the other hand, if your memoir is going to focus on recent times and future events (e.g. say you’ve just been diagnosed with a serious illness, and you want to document your physical symptoms and emotional reactions) then you have a perfect opportunity to become a kind of personal anthropologist. Keep copious notes as if you were observing yourself and your life from a social scientist’s perspective. What happened at your first doctor’s appointment? How did the other patients in the waiting room behave? How did the staff treat you? How did your family react to the diagnosis? Keep a detailed daily journal and record everything you experience. The richer the detail, the better the material you’ll have to refer back to when it comes time to write your memoir. Nothing will be as powerful as these impressions recorded in the moment.
Another source of data I used for my memoir was notes from informal interviews with my husband and then-teenaged children. Because my bipolar episodes often rendered me an “unreliable witness,” I had to rely on their recollections to fill in the gaps in my own story. In my memoir, I distinguish between my personal memories and theirs by specifying: “Rob says…” or “Tami tells me that…” This compromise enabled me to tell my story as honestly and comprehensively as possible.
Record impressions based on all five senses where relevant: what did things look, sound, taste, smell and feel like? This helps to bring the reader right into the situations you’re describing. You want them to feel as though they are truly accompanying you on this journey. This not only builds empathy for you, but makes readers feel much more invested in the story, and therefore more likely to recommend your memoir to others.
Store all your notes and other materials (brochures, travel tickets, mementos) safely. File notes and papers either in chronological order or by topic and use shoe boxes or other containers for bulkier items. The key is to have your records and other materials easily accessible as you write so you can refer to them whenever needed to verify dates, places and other details, and to inspire you to write with accuracy, immediacy and authenticity. For example, I still remember the sharp sensation in my chest the first time I held the ID bracelet from the psychiatric hospital where I’d been admitted. In that moment, I vividly remembered the fear, the zonked out feeling from heavy doses of psych meds, the staff, the other patients, the sounds… I was right back there! And I could write with so much more conviction and urgency as a result.
3. Develop a skeleton
When writing non-fiction, I like to start with a clear outline. Once I’ve determined a skeleton for the story, the writing flows relatively easily. It’s just a matter of “putting some flesh on the bones.”
One piece of advice I found very helpful is: start with the ending, and then decide where/when to begin your memoir. In other words, figure out what you consider to be the climax, then go back to the beginning and progressively move your story to that high point.
Most importantly, consider your audience: what story structure is most likely to be of greatest interest to them?
4. Find your voice
We all have a unique voice that represents something of who we are as individuals. Try to write like you speak; without any “literary airs” or self-conscious turns of phrase. Just be yourself on the page/screen and tell your story in your own words.
If you’re comfortable, include some humor – especially self-deprecating humor. Readers love a break from all the drama and pain that many memoirs include. Even the most serious topics (drug addiction, illness, betrayal, death) can be brightened with occasional moments of humor.
5. Write a first draft
Again: consider your audience! Ask, and then ask again: which details of my story will most interest readers? To help you sort through all the materials you’ve collected in the data gathering phase, ask which details you would include, and why: a) if you were writing the memoir only for yourself, as a therapeutic exercise; b) if you were writing it just for your family members as a memento of your life; or c) if you were writing for publication?
Using your skeleton, consider factors like story pacing, use of dialogue, inclusion of artwork or photographs, where to place section and chapter breaks, etc. A memoir tells a story – it’s a true story from your own perspective – so all the guidelines of good story-telling apply here, too.
While we’re on the topic of truth-telling, it goes without saying that your readers rely on you to be honest. No exaggerations, no deceptions, no hoaxes. Wikipedia has a whole page with details of fake, false, fraudulent, fabricated and hoax memoirs dating back to 1836. It’s almost the case that fake memoirs are a sub-genre of memoirs! If you want to take licence with the truth, it’s simple: just write fiction!
6. Get permissions
Something that’s unique to a memoir is that you will probably have made detailed references to family members and friends, colleagues, and even professionals like health care providers, lawyers, and so on. That means that you need their permission to use their names in your memoir, or else you need to anonymize them.
To get permissions, I emailed people all the pages where they were mentioned by name and asked if I could a) include their names on those pages and b) formally thank them in the Acknowledgements. Only one psychiatrist preferred not to be named: he said he had no problem with what I had written, but he just didn’t want any “publicity.” He asked to be referred to simply as “Dr. Y.”
7. All the rest…
All the remaining work is the same for any book, not just a memoir, and is not dealt with here.
Ask for feedback from beta-readers.
Take up feedback and re-write sections if necessary.
Send to an editor.
Take up edits and polish the text.
Send for initial proofreading.
Take up proofreading corrections.
Send for typesetting.
Send for final proofreading. (Sometimes errors creep in during typesetting.)
Publish (decide: paperback, hard cover, ebook, audiobook?).
Promote and market your book.
Here’s to you and your memoir!