Many memoir writers worry prematurely about the people they plan to write about and whether they might take offense or be hurt by recollections and revelations of past events. Stop worrying. Start writing. Give them something to talk about, as Bonnie Raitt sings.
For those who struggle to sit down and inscribe their personal memories, the internal editor kicks in as soon as they pick up the pen. For first drafts of memoir, there is only one rule: no rules. For your eyes only. No one looking over your shoulder. Write raw and don’t worry about spelling, grammar, punctuation, or coherence. Don’t cross anything out. Write in margins. Write in telegraphic messages that you can unpack and decode later. Just get your own version of the truth on paper. First a sketch; then you’ll work up a full portrait later.
You can’t write your own version of what you experienced if you have your internal censors on autopilot. Don’t worry about what your sister will think, or Uncle Jim, or cousin Esther. First get your story down as you remember it – now. Speak honestly and freely and in your own voice.
One of the most common mistakes I find writers make in memoir is veering away from their whole truth and losing their authentic voice. One narrator tried to protect the image of her step-children and in so doing so unintentionally cast herself in a most unflattering light. Another memoirist collapsed several secondary characters into one and left behind a composite character without depth or plausibility of motives. The unintended consequence of an author’s attempt to varnish their truth is the reader loses trust in the narrator.
Changing the name or location seems harmless enough. Wrong. So begins the slow descent into the problem of unreliable narrator. It’s your story. Tell your truth according to the facts. If others behave badly, show the reader how they behaved. You don’t have to tell the reader your step-children are brats. Let the reader infer this from your description of their actions.
Every other eyewitness to the events you record has their own version of the same story. Your task is to focus on your memory of that real-life experience. Tell the truth. Don’t make it up.
So take a piece of paper and write editor in red big bold letters. Now ball it up into your fist. Scrunch it tighter. Put it in your left hand and sit on your internal editor. Don’t worry what anyone else will think about your story in your raw first draft. Write.
William Zinsser’s essay, “How to Write a Memoir,” published in The American Scholar in 2006, offers good advice.
“[T]hink small. Don’t rummage around in your past – or your family’s past – to find episodes that you think are “important” enough to be worthy of including in your memoir. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they a contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.”
Write what you know. After your sketchbook of life vignettes begins to fill up with words, flesh them out into fuller portraits of these moments. Should your memoir be seriously considered for publication, then is the time to concern yourself how those written in the book might react or respond. Not as you begin the creative writing process.
5 thoughts on “Memoir and memories: unvarnished truth”
Thanks so much. You have taught me how to write a memoir. Now at the end of my second manuscript, I look back and realize how much I’ve learned. The difference between the first stab and this version is vast and I attribute that to you. Cheers!
Only you could write your story, Robin. Glad I could help you revise the manuscript so that you could make it a story to share with others.
Love the article. Great advice. But do I dare?
The truth if it’s varnished it isn’t truth.
Getting the truth down on paper without the varnish of ego is the goal of writing memoir. Thanks Helada for your comment and affirmation.