A Memoir is a Lifestory

lifestory

A Memoir is a Lifestory

It’s important to remember that a memoir is a story, the story of your life. It’s not a memoir (well, not an interesting one) if it’s just a set of facts, even with interpretation. While readers might be interested in facts, they really perk up when they have access to what you thought about the facts, how they affected your life, who you are because of them. In other words, the lifestory.

I’m kind of hitting you over the head with this since I think that often people don’t realize how important personal feelings are in a memoir, beyond the facts. Look at the example below.

An example

Say you start off your memoir with something like:

I was born in 1932 so I was seven when the war broke out. The war was something that was happening to others; around me but not intrusive. Except that sometimes the rationing pinched.

My father, who was just 26 at the outbreak of the war, enlisted immediately and went overseas in late 1940.

Seems okay, no? But what might it look as if you focused on a more personal angle? Read the next example.

Better telling of a lifestory

You say that the rationing ‘pinched.’ What if you told the story underlying that summary statement?

No chocolate!”

“Sugar is rationed, now,” said Mom.

This made no sense to me. Sugar was what Mom put in her tea. What had that to do with chocolate?

“Are the soldiers getting it?” I asked suspiciously.

Mom shrugged. “They might be.”

“Couldn’t they leave some for me? I won’t take much, I promise.”

“Linda Eleanor Birch, the soldiers deserve the best food we can give them! They’re fighting for us.”

This is the first time it came home to me that war was a crisis.

Difference between the two examples

The first example isn’t bad but I think it’s more effectively used for minor things (why Aunt Minnie was there when the big explosion happened).

But, particularly because it is your opening, you want to grab the reader’s interest right off the bat. And showing how rationing affected you in very concrete terms is a more vivid way to start. Often what works is to look at summary statements (rationing pinched) and remember an incident which illustrates it.

But there were other opportunities to flesh out the narrative even in that short excerpt. You say the war was around me but not intrusive. What would that look like? How did you know that it was around?

Similarly, the statement that My father went overseas can be expanded to introduce a more personal feel. How did you feel about your father leaving? What was the day like when he left for overseas? Did your mother cry? Did you? Did you know what it meant?

Interspersing

Of course, you don’t want to simply string a bunch of memories together. The memoir needs background information, a grounding in the when and where of the lifestory, your reflections on what happened, etc. However, slowing down at critical points and remembering in detail what happened will make for richer reading.

How to Start an Autobiography or Memoir

autobiography

How to Start an Autobiography or Memoir

What’s the difference between autobiography and memoir?

Strictly speaking, a memoir is about a specific period or event in your life. In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt recounted his life growing up poor in Ireland. His second book, ‘Tis, started when he was a teacher in New York. So, distinct periods.

An autobiography intends to cover the whole life of a person.

Now, this distinction may or may not be important to you. I think it depends on your intended audience.

Your audience

Some people want to write down their experiences in life as a way of leaving a record for future generations. And these can be invaluable as they capture events which would otherwise be lost. So, if your audience is primarily family and friends, you’re probably writing an autobiography.

If you intend a more extensive audience, that is, if you are hoping to publish what you are working on, then a memoir, capturing an important moment or event and exploring its meaning to you and hopefully the wider world, is more likely to be of interest to people who don’t know you.

Honestly, I don’t think it matters what you call it. I think you should just write what you want to say. Nor do I think it a great idea to write with an eye to publication. First, because this exercise, however termed, is a worthwhile activity in and of itself and secondly, assuming publication can lead to a self-censoring, i.e. I don’t want people to know that! I think you get a better book if you just get down what you want to say and leave the editing and publication decisions to when you have a first draft.

So, where do I start?

There are/will be posts on whether to do research, and other background stuff but I am focused here on how to actually start getting words on a page.

In another post, I will cover my preferred way to start writing any piece, but I adjust it here for the memoir.

As a first step, put away any research you have done. If you didn’t consult it again until you were editing your first draft, I’d be happy. But in any case, do not use the research as a guide to what you should write.

Instead, sit down at your computer and just spend a few moments thinking about an event or incident you want to include somewhere in the memoir. Really think about what happened, why it was important, who was there, how you felt about the whole thing.

Then just start writing. Specifically:

  • Try to get it all down. Just let it flow out of you onto the page.
  • Don’t worry about getting the hometown of your second cousin right, or what year you first started to play baseball. Don’t stop for any of that. Just write down the memory.
  • Include as much detail and as many feelings as you remember. Don’t just stick to the facts, ma’am.
  • If you need to, leave blanks where you know something else is needed that you can’t remember at the moment.

Once you’ve done that memory, think of another and follow the same process. You really can build an entire memoir from this method as you can a novel. It is a much more entertaining approach for you and has the added advantage of providing a more vivid picture than a from-the-cooling-of-the-earth-to-now litany would.

Once you’ve done all the incidents you want to include, I have suggestions on how to weave it into a complete memoir which I’ll post in the future.

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.