pathways to publishing > writers' tips > memoir writing

 

Writing a Memoir

One of the great privileges of being an editor is the invitation to delve into the lives of others. Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, a manuscript is an expression of self that is revealing in many ways, none more so than memoir. I read a lot of memoir manuscripts, and am repeatedly humbled by the experience. It takes courage and a great deal of dedication to complete a book-length memoir. And it takes a deep personal and professional commitment as a writer to develop a memoir manuscript for publication. Perhaps you are in the throes of wrestling your life down onto the page.

WHO ARE YOU WRITING THE MEMOIR FOR?

Memoir manuscripts can have two different audiences. One is the writer's family and close circle of friends; the other is the wider public. Writing for those who know you is a little like sitting down with the family photo album and telling stories about the images. The viewer has a curiosity about the stories and images because of their relationship to the teller (as well as fair degree of assumed knowledge), and that relationship is in itself enough to warrant their interest and keep them going through the text. A work for a public readership requires a different type of narrative structure and momentum to engage strangers with your life story and compel them to keep turning the pages. It is important to decide who the book is for, as this will define how you proceed. You can, of course, write for both types of audiences, you'll just end up with two manuscripts.

MASSAGING LIFE TO FIT NARRATIVE'S CONSTRAINTS

If you are aiming for general publication, the work lies in honing the narrative to both honour your story and provide an engaging experience for the reader. Good memoir is much more than a collection of memories. Every life is extraordinary and every moment can be meaningful and poignant. It is often tempting to include all strong images and potent memories, and as the memoirist, you can feel the importance of these moments in the shaping of your life. Sometimes, however, scenes and momentos from the past can feel disjointed to the reader, more like a collection of images in a photo album than a crafted story. As the memoirist Drusilla Modjeska points out in her book Timepieces (Picador 2002), 'Narrative makes structural demands that life doesn't make – or give – and the intellectual puzzle of marrying these two incommensurable forces is one of writing's labours.'

IDENTIFYING WHAT YOUR STORY IS ABOUT

The memoirist must clearly identify what their key themes are; what their story is about. This clarity will help make the piece of writing larger than its immediate circumstances and reveal its inner purpose. With this in mind, it is important to trim away material that does not serve the themes or propel the reader forward. Dead ends, in the form of memories and anecdotes that may in themselves be interesting, but don't serve the central story line, need to be excised. Think about what the reader needs to know in order to follow the story thread and strip away all those other interesting bits and pieces of life that side-track the reader from reaching the intended destination (the final page!).

"IT'S ALL IN THE ART. YOU GET NO CREDIT FOR LIVING"

It is not easy to go through your precious recollections and put them aside, and this isn't a reflection on the importance of the memory; it is simply your work as the writer to serve the narrative above all. This is what Vivian Gornick is referring to when she writes, in The Situation and the Story (Farrar Straus and Giroux 2001), that a memoir is 'controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom... What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.'

That's all very well in theory, but how does a writer do it in practice? There's no easy answer. There are as many different ways to write a memoir as there are different lives lived. From my perspective, the most important advice I can give is for the memoirist to embrace the power of a writing imagination. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, "It's all in the art. You get no credit for living."