by Ericka McIntyre
I’ve spent much of our Covid year learning about, editing, and writing my own memoir. Memoir is a form I think every writer should try to tackle at least once. Everyone has a story to tell. The exercise of writing a memoir can sharpen our memories and force us to write outside our comfort zones—always good practice for a writer at any level. If you want to craft a memoir that is truly a page-turner, you can and should use many of your fiction writing tricks.
First Things First: What a Memoir Is and Is Not
It is important to know what a memoir is and is not. A memoir is not your autobiography. A memoir is a slice of your life at a particular time, in a particular place. It is literally your memories put to paper. Some memoirs cover a year in a person’s life. Some memoirs cover several years. Think in terms of a season of your life, rather than a finite block of days on the calendar.
Many new memoirists hamstring themselves by feeling they need to tell their entire life stories, nose to tail, David Copperfield-style. You do not. A memoir focuses on a theme, on a particular red thread that has wound through your life thus far. It is not a full accounting of all your sins and wins!
A memoir is not a journal entry, even though it is your story. You must write it so that a reader can benefit from it. There must be a compelling reason to keep them turning the pages, such as a lesson they can learn or inspiration for them to find. Memoir can feel navel-gazey in the writing process, but it should never feel navel-gazey on the page. (Yes, I know this is daunting! But persevere.)
What holds a memoir together is a story—your story.
Remember as you write each page that you are telling that story, not making a police report. You can change names to protect people’s privacy. And since you are working from memory, the story will have your slant—don’t feel you have to get every single angle on it. If you ask your family about the picnic you had that one day in 1972, you will get a different story from each member about that day, told from their perspective. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth.
Discover what your truth is and use your memoir to tell it.
An Inciting Incident: You Need One
Telling us about the time you went to the market after work and ran into a friend you hadn’t seen since high school and you exchanged pleasantries with them is not a gripping inciting incident. Telling us about the time you went to the market after work, ran into a friend you hadn’t seen since high school, and found out they needed a kidney is a start. Deciding to see if you were a match to help them because of that one time in school when they saved you from being assaulted by a teacher? That is a gripping inciting incident.
Don’t invent something that isn’t true, but when you sit down to comb through the sand of your life, you are searching for the pearl that you will hand to your readers. Think of the unusual things. If you don’t think there are any of those pearls, think again. Everyone has as story.
Once I sat in a hotel bar on a business trip and met seven different travelers, from seven different age groups, seven different places, seven different walks of life. Each and every one of them had a compelling story. You do, too. And if you write it well, people will want to read it.
Many new memoirists neglect to see that what they are crafting are characters (who just happen to be real people). You are the “main character” of your memoir.
This is tough for many writers. Do we ever really see ourselves completely objectively? Probably not. But we must do our best. Use the same techniques to craft interesting characters in your memoir that you do in your fiction writing. Make a list of who will appear on the stage of your memoir, and sketch them out, just as you would the players in your novel.
- Did your fifth-grade teacher always smell of hard-boiled eggs?
- What type of sweaters did your mother wear?
- How did your first husband’s patterns of speech differ from those of the man you left him for? (Yes, we can be the villains in our memoirs.)
- What is your college roommate’s backstory?
- What seemed to make your stepfather abusive/wonderful/hilarious/boring?
Use significant details to build distinctive characters that your readers will cheer and jeer at in your pages. Each person will be painted as you saw them, of course, but make sure they’re unique individuals, and not just slices of your own id on parade.
Here’s where the old saw, “show, don’t tell” rears its exasperating head yet again. It applies to memoir just as much as it does to novels. Memoirists can take license to paint scenes for their readers, and they absolutely should. The day you meet the person who changed your life forever? I want to see, smell, hear, taste, and feel everything about it.
Don’t say, “I went to audition for a play and I met the director who later became my best friend.” Craft an entire scene, from the moment you got ready to go, to the way you got there, everyone who was there with you, to what immediately struck you about the director. Did you stumble through the audition or did it go off without a hitch? What was your first conversation with this person?
Show us all of it, with action, with sensory detail, and with your “characters’” speech. These scenes need to have the same kind of active pacing you’d place in your fiction. You can use foreshadowing in them, just as you would in your novel, too. And you can tell the truth while you’re doing all of this.
A lot of first-time memoirists feel that since they’re telling a true story, they can’t use dialogue because they don’t recall everything that was said to a T. Not true! You’re writing your memories of events, to the best of your recollection, not testifying under oath in a court of law.
You remember how the people in your life spoke. You remember their verbal tics. You remember their accents. Stay true to those things and the events as you recall them, and use them to rebuild conversations that you and they had. Your mother may have said “but” instead of “however,” but you’re not going to be called to account for that. You won’t get billed five bucks for every adjective or preposition you don’t get exactly right, so loosen up!
It’s important to note too, that dialogue becomes easier to write the better you know and have crafted your “characters.” When you have drawn who a person is, how they sound, what motivates them, it is easy to imagine what they would have said. Take the layer from your memory and fill in the surface losses, adhering as closely to the truth as you can.
If this all sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is. But writing a memoir can be some of the most rewarding work a writer can do. Even if you never publish that manuscript, you can use it as practice to hone your writing style, find your voice, and sharpen your skills. That is always worthwhile. You never know what may come tumbling forth from your mind when you try to remember your own life—I have been astonished at my story many times in the process—the themes that have revealed themselves, the synchronicities I never was aware of before. I have even gotten several novel and short essay ideas from the work of writing my memoir. Anything that gets a writer’s mind turning in new ways can be beneficial.
Have you written a memoir? Does the thought excite or terrify you? A little of both? Tell us in the comments.
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Ericka McIntyre is a freelance writer and editor. She has over twenty years of experience working in media and publishing, for a wide array of employers and clients. She is also currently Editor-at-Large of Writer’s Digest, a 100-year-old brand serving the writing community. In her current work, she focuses on writing for a handful of regular clients, with a heavy emphasis on editing and book coaching for independent authors. She works on fiction and nonfiction, across multiple genres. She development edits, copyedits, and proofreads. Learn more about her and her work at www.erickamcintyre.com.