by Jenny Hansen
In my wildest dreams, I never imagined I’d write a memoir.
Like most of you, I’ve written as long as I can remember, and from the very first day, I’ve lived solidly in the fiction camp.
Before we get any farther, let’s make sure we’re all speaking the same language.
What is a memoir?
The best definition I’ve found of memoir and how it differs from autobiography can be found here. In case you don’t have time to read that fantastic post by Barbara Doyen, here’s a quick summary:
A memoir is a special kind of autobiography, usually involving a public portion of the author’s life as it relates to a person, historic event, or thing. The text is about the personal knowledge and/or experiences of the author.
It’s my personal opinion that memoir writers are made, not born.
- You need to feel strongly enough about the events in the book that you’re willing to lay them out for the world to see, with none of the anonymous padding that fiction provides.
- You must be well-versed in 3-Act Structure and story mechanics.
- You need the objectivity to slice and dice your experience until it fits neatly into this 3-Act Structure.
What motivated ME to write a memoir?
In 2005, I survived a massive bout with blood clots – two big ones (one in each leg) became a swarm of them in my lungs. They call those pulmonary emboli, but really, they’re all blood clots. 1% of the people who experience what I did live through it.
When my treatment was done (after 4 months in bed and 9 months on blood thinners), I found out I have a blood clotting disorder called Factor V Leiden. Many things about my daily living habits had to change to accommodate this disorder.
Was the experience memoir-worthy? I don’t think so. It simply wasn’t universal or compelling enough. I lived and I was thankful, and I had to make some lifestyle changes. End of story.
But what about when I threw pregnancy into the mix?
The four main causes of a blood clot are cancer, obesity, a previous blood clot and a genetic disorder. Obviously, I fit several of these risk criteria. I couldn’t just decide to have a baby, I had to visit the high risk OB and ask permission just to try.
Pregnant women gain four pounds of blood, which increases the risk of forming a blood clot by 8 times. Yowza.
My pregnancy journey was rocky, to put it mildly – infertility, shots in the stomach twice a day, worries about late-term miscarriage and fetal demise.
Was the pregnancy itself a big enough theme to support the frame of a memoir? By itself, probably not.
Memoirs must have themes that speak to a wide audience.
These aren’t how-to books, and they’re not autobiographies. As Barbara Doyen says in the “what is memoir” post I reference above:
A memoir does not contain everything from this particular slice of the author’s life, but rather, events are selected and examined for meaning relative to the purpose of the book.
The author has questioned what happened and come to some kind of new understanding or lesson learned by it. The author shows us how he or she was affected by this experience, how it has profoundly changed the way he sees the world.
And by extension, reading the book will change the way the reader sees the world.
I worried about whether I could make my book universally compelling.
All the writers here at WITS will tell you, I spend a lot of time and effort on theme, whether it's their books or mine.
To me, a book works like this:
- Plot is the train that drives your book.
- Theme is the track the plot runs on.
- Characters are the ones who populate the train and make things interesting.
One of the reasons why memoirs are so tough is that your plot and characters are already in place. All you have left to work with is theme. Your theme (or themes if you're lucky) are what really hold a memoir together and make it a journey worth taking.
A deep soul-search for themes in my memoir yielded more than I thought:
- Survival: What if I showed how the lessons learned with the blood clot scare helped save the day during my pregnancy?
- Self-worth: What if I discussed the guilt and depression that women feel when they can’t conceive?
- Fear: What if there were things that I knew that could help other women, and their family members, have an easier time through their own rocky journey?
This last is at the heart of why I would put my fiction aside.
I was compelled to write about high-risk/high-worry pregnancy because these women feel so terrified and alone. They’re not experiencing the joyous, “fluffy cloud” type of pregnancy so many of their friends and family tell them about. Worst of all, the end-game isn’t guaranteed and they're scared.
High-risk mommies have all the information overload of “regular” mommies, but there’s a whole lot more. Shots, bed rest, miscarriages, endless doctor appointments. These women spend some or all of their pregnancies wondering things like: “Will I get to keep this baby?” and “Will I die?”
I spent my entire pregnancy wondering, "Where's the book for THIS kind of pregnancy?!" I simply could not rest until I wrote one.
In my opinion, this sort of compulsion is the only thing that will sustain you through the hassle of fact-checking, research and structuring of ANY book. But the memoir factor adds an extra dollop of a pain. It’s hard to figure out how to break a true story into 3-Act structure – we simply can’t see our own lives clearly. Still, you MUST do it, the same as you would any other novel.
A quick note on 3-Act structure:
Many, many writers don’t have a clear concept of it. I know I didn’t until I saw Stephen Cannell (creator of the Rockford Files and like 40 other TV shows) give a talk. If you want to read an entire post on this topic, click here. In the meantime, here’s a quick summary of 3-Act Structure using Stephen Cannell’s words – feel free to skip this if you’re a 3-Act Pro:
“When I ask young writers what 3-Act Structure is, they say it has a beginning, middle and an end. This is not the answer. A lunch line has a beginning, middle and an end. The Three-Act structure is critical to good dramatic writing, and each act has specific story moves.”
Take the movie, “When Harry Met Sally.”
The First Act is all about the hook, or the premise. In this case, it’s that “men and women cannot be friends.” So you’ve got the set-up where they meet and then decide they’re not going to be friends.
Act Two opens with Harry and Sally meeting up again in the bookstore and slowly becoming friends. Their friendship becomes the single most important thing in their lives and the worst thing in the world would be to lose it.
The scene in the wedding is the dark moment climax of Act 2 because it is the end of their friendship as we know it. The curtain closes on Act 2 because the WORST thing has happened…the two of them are no longer friends.
Act Three is the “clean up” act, the resolution to your story. In this case, it’s all about Harry trying to get back into Sally’s good graces so the two of them can be friends again, just as they were. Sally’s having none of it.
Finally, on New Year’s Eve, Harry has his turning point and we get the final scene of the movie where he runs through New York City to get to Sally before midnight. When he sees her at the party, he gives his now famous I-Love-You speech.
When I heard this talk, the light bulb turned on for me. Hopefully, it did the same for any of you that were iffy about why there’s such a time disparity in the three acts.
Just remember the 25-50-25 rule:
- Act 1: First 25% of your story – the hook
- Act 2: Next 50% of your story – ends with the black moment
- Act 3: Last 25% of your story – the resolution of the black moment, leaving your main character with a new understanding.
I'm going to turn the floor over to you now...
Are you attracted to memoirs, either as a reader or a writer? What interests you the most about this genre? What do you dislike about it? Feel free to ask any questions or share any insights you have in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!
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About Jenny Hansen
Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after her young daughter). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 18 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing.