Should I Write a Memoir?

memoir

memoir

Should I Write a Memoir?

So, we’ve dealt with Can I Write My Memoirs? Answer: Yes. Should you write a memoir? Completely different question. Obviously, only you can decide whether or not you should, but here are some thoughts you might factor into your decision.

Benefits of writing your memoir

Personal/family benefit: My older sister died not long ago and as I was going through her family pictures, I found one of my grandfather. For succeeding generations, it will be the picture of an old geezer who was related to them. And although I didn’t know a lot about him, I did know that he and my grandmother had come to Canada from Japan in 1917; that he was a lovely man but an alcoholic; that the family was very poor because of that. So, I could give the picture some meaning by recording my memories of him. I think a memoir does the same thing—it leaves behind a record of who you were and who others were for the benefit of those who come behind you.

Making sense of your life: I have repeatedly found that having to write something down forces me to think more deeply about it then when it is just swirling around in my head. I think you will find the same. Writing your story helps to focus the mind, allows you to make connections which might not have been evident before, and encourages you to reflect on the events.

When not to

Maybe that’s too strong. But there are times when you might want to pause.

When the primary reason is revenge. I realize that few of us like to admit this, but do thoughts like, “That’ll really show him,” or “She’ll never live it down,” flit through your mind as you think about doing it? If so, you might want to consider whether a memoir is the best way to accomplish this.

To tell your side of the story. Might seem a reasonable reason but, as in fiction, a good memoir allows the reader to come to her own conclusions about your story. If your primary reason for writing a memoir is the need to drive a point home or justify yourself, this can read as self-serving or even egotistical.

Frankly, I’m not putting these up as caveats from some moral high ground. I’m saying that either of these doesn’t bode well for a good memoir.  Think about a time when you were trapped listening to someone focused on revenge or self-justification. Besides being monologue-ish, the ‘conversation’ often ends up sounding whiny, repetitive, petty, self-absorbed and ultimately, boring. Same thing with memoirs. The fact that lots of famous people use memoirs this way doesn’t mean it creates a compelling and believable narrative.

Who is your audience?

Part of your decision whether to write a memoir should include your intended audience. If this is primarily for circulation in your family, it is probably less an issue than if you intend to publish it. I’m not saying that writing only for your family won’t stir up issues, because it well might, but publishing it throws it into the public arena. You need to decide whether your memoir needs to be widely or more narrowly circulated.

So, as I’ve said, only you can decide whether to write a memoir. I think it is a valuable contribution to your family but it also takes time and a little courage. More about the latter in an upcoming post.

Can I Write My Memoirs?

memoirs

memoirs

Can I Write My Memoirs?

Yes.

I suppose you’d like a little more meat on that bone.

Well, I think everyone can write a memoir.

You’ve got memories, you can write your memoirs. However, I accept that this bald statement, stirring though it is, might not be enough to attack the computer with zeal. There are often some lurking questions.

Do I have anything to say?

Every life is unique. Only you have had your experiences which you have coupled with your unique learnings which have culminated in a life nobody else has lived. For example, your first family was unique. You may think, “Nah, I had two other brothers—so they grew up the same way.” But not true.

Were you the oldest or the youngest? If the oldest, did you feel the pressure of being a model for your younger siblings? Are you the one your parents made all the mistakes on? Did you resent that they were more relaxed about discipline and expectations with the other two than they were with you? If you were the youngest, did you get babied? Was that good or bad for later life? Did you envy the attention your oldest brother always got? And middle children—don’t get me started. So even siblings in the same family environment experience it differently.

Another lurking issue might be ‘ah, it’s all been said and written before.’ True to some extent but as I mentioned in my post, Finding Your Distinctive Voice, the famous novelist Kurt Vonnegut believed that there are only a few basic stories in literature which keep being repeated (boy meets girl, etc.). It is the distinctive spin you put on that retelling which makes the narrative worth reading.

Do I have the talent to write my memoirs?

Well, if you think you need to be Shakespeare, then probably not. But if you are hoping for memoirs which are engaging and meaningful then, again and by and large, yes.

However, one thing contributes greatly to an evocative and real story. Honesty. Honesty with yourself and your audience. This means presenting things as they were, not as you would have wanted them to be or even how you want people to remember you. Your readers are smart cookies and they are likely to catch significant revisionist history. If they do, your memoirs don’t ring true and will therefore be less interesting.

Do I have the skill?

You may assume that if you are a fabulous story teller, you have the skills you need. Or conversely, if you’re not, then you can’t write your memoirs. Actually, neither is necessarily true.

Writing down who you are requires a different set of skills. When you tell a story in person, you have your voice, gestures, and physical presence to help. In writing, you have none of these and therefore have a find ways to nevertheless make your story appealing.

So, you need to acquire some writing craft. A bit of work but completely doable. Learning some writing practices is what this blog is all about. If you follow the blog, you will be able to develop the skills needed.

I am planning to do a series of posts on memoir writing which will appear sporadically. I think I will do one more. My next post is Should I Write a Memoir? Completely different issue.

Should I Publish My Memoirs?

publish

Should I Publish My Memoirs?

I won’t bother with a post about ‘Can I Publish My Memoirs’ because social media makes it possible for anyone to publish anything. Nope, it’s the ‘should’ that can be a sticking point.

It is completely understandable that having labored so prodigiously on writing your memoir, you want to share it. Makes perfect sense.

But whether to do so is still a question.

Who is your audience?

Is this memoir primarily a record of your part in your family’s history? That is, is the main intent to document a time or events you would like to pass on to family and friends? If so, then publishing to the wider world might not be imperative.

By all means put your memoir in a form that can be shared, but you may not need to publish on a wider platform.

If that still feels unsatisfying, ask yourself:

Why do I want to publish?

When I originally talked about whether you should write a memoir, I covered some of the reasons why you might or might not want to embark on this arduous journey. Now that you are on the other side of the mountain (yes, I know, mixed metaphors. I like them), they’re still useful to consider.

Reread the whole memoir from start to finish, as if you’ve never read it before. While doing so, ask yourself the following questions:

Does a sense of wanting revenge come across?

You probably didn’t start out that way, but think about whether the work has a tone of I’ve shown them or Take that! If there is a whiff here and there, I think you can rewrite those parts so they are more showing what happened than telling the reader how to feel about the events. However, if there is a strong odor of payback throughout, you might want to consider whether having written it down has gotten it out of your system, and just leave it on your hard drive.

Is there a feeling that you’ve gotten out your side of the story?

Of course, in some sense, that’s what a memoir is. You want to tell your story. I’m not really talking about that. It’s more the sense that you may have tilted the narrative so that you always come out on top. Little niggles that a certain event didn’t happen like that—a little revisionist history at play. I know the temptation is high, but actually readers don’t warm to protagonists who always win. First, because they sense the innate unbelievability but also because—well, do you really like someone who always presents himself as top dog?

These last two items are not entirely to try to save yourself from yourself but also because addressing them will make a better work.

Does your story communicate a larger story/learning?

In rereading the whole memoir, does it feel as if it is conveying a sense of some larger truth beyond the mere events? I know this is high bar, but if you want non-family to enjoy it, it is most helpful if readers can identify their own lives in your events.

Doesn’t have to be the world-is-a-better-place-if-we’re-all-nice, or crime-doesn’t-pay. It can be small but meaningful. I don’t want to give you examples because this is your memoir, but if you think readers will end by feeling they have learned something about themselves or their lives, then your memoir might well be something that needs to be enjoyed by a wider circle than friends and family.

Should I do Research for My Memoirs?

research

Should I do Research for My Memoirs?

First off, you need to know that I hate research so you need to take that into account when you read this post. My preference is to write it first and then figure out if it’s right. In fact, I’ve suggested in other posts a way to write both fiction and memoir which is more haphazard but I think more effective. However, I recognize that just because I don’t like doing it, doesn’t mean that some isn’t necessary.

Do I need it?

Depends on the type of memoir you’re writing. If it is intensely personal—your take on surviving cancer, or losing a child, or winning the Nobel Prize—you probably won’t need much. Checking names or dates, etc. all make sense but you are already the expert on this type of memoir.

Memoirs might need more research if you want to delve back a bit into your family history. Even if the focus is on you, as it should be, there may be facts or background which might help to illuminate what happened in your life.

What kind of research?

Again, depends on the type of memoir you are writing, but some sources might be:

Interviews with relatives. Relatives and older friends can provide an adult perspective on your childhood memories. Or provide answers to questions you’ve always wondered about.

Historical record: Particularly if you are covering when you were young, it might be useful to read any histories of that early period. You can be reminded of situations you’d forgotten or how the period shaped behavior which makes sense put into its context.

Old photos or diaries. Naturally. Don’t forget any teen diaries you have tucked away. Cringe material, I know, but it again might jog your memory on incidents or insights from that time.

Other memoirs dealing with a similar topic. If your memoir is focused on a particular major event in your life, reading how others handled your topic can give you ideas on how to approach it and even how to structure it.

 

For more on this, go to the good article called Why Research is Important to Your Memoir.

But it’s not a research project

This, I think, is the biggest trap with undertaking research, particularly before you start writing. If your objective is to fully explore your family tree, by all means, go ahead.  But that’s not a memoir.

You should be researching enough to inform your memoir, but not a lot more. It is easy to be trapped in a never-ending cycle of research because every fact you dig up will lead to three more questions.

In addition, you may not know what facts/background you’re going to need before you start. It’s more likely to come up when you are writing. So just-in-time research might be preferable. In particular, it avoids doing a whole lot of research that you don’t use, or worse, try to shoehorn into the story just because it’s interesting.

So research if you must but not necessarily research.

Can/Should I Make Up Stuff for My Memoir or Personal History?

history

Can/Should I Make Up Stuff for My Memoir or Personal History?

Of course not. You don’t change history

True. Well, at least you should not rewrite your personal history. As I’ve mentioned in another post, Do I Have to Tell the Truth in a Memoir? , the real downside of doing so is that you are unlikely to create a good story if you spend large parts of it hiding or distorting your past. There is a presumption in a memoir that you are telling the truth (unless you are a movie star or a politician—all bets seem to be off for them).

Having said that…

Unless you have perfect recall, there are likely moments which you can’t remember and are trivial—the color of the dress, the number of fish you caught, the weather that day. If it isn’t critical to your story, it makes sense to make it up rather than subject your reader to: “I think his name was Fido but that might have been the previous dog which was also a cocker spaniel.” Just call him Fido. Beyond the trivial detail, there are a range of other possibilities for not truth-telling.

Reasonable

There are instances when you might want to move beyond the literal or factual truth.

  • It was too much of a coincidence that they were both there at the same time—it had to have been planned.
  • Her nervousness and ill-temper made me think that she was seriously worried about something even though she denied it.
  • I can’t believe you’re accusing me of that,” when all you actually remember is a denial.

Stretching history

Maybe it’s okay; maybe not. It’s a judgment call.

  • Combining characters: Say you have a mess of cousins, none of whom will figure largely in your narrative. You could draw a character which represents your cousins and let him/her stand in for all. Of course, be prepared for Hey! There’s no cousin Lex!
  • Cutting corners: Readers get bored if an action is repeated too many times. Getting married, not getting married, reuniting, breaking it off, giving the engagement another try, a blow-up which calls the wedding off. Unless this is the main focus of your story and you plan to put a lot of meat on those bones, this repetition is tiresome even if true-to-life.  You might need to cut the number of repetitions so as not to lose the reader.

Questionable

Be very leery if you are deviating from the straight and narrow to:

  • Maintain it never happened. This is the Big Lie—protesting that the event is a figment of the whole world’s imagination and perhaps substituting a more palatable version.
  • Avoid a particular important but embarrassing incident. Or skipping over the event completely—like writing about going from one job to another without mentioning that you were fired.
  • Clean up your story. Here you sanitize the story to put yourself in a better light. The DUI was all a big misunderstanding which you ended up being penalized for.

 

So, your memoir is going to be a mix of truth and fiction no matter what. The trick is to keep your emotional honesty.