Where to begin? Getting clarity on the genre of memoir is a good start. Then writing one memory.
It can be intimidating to think of writing your life story beginning at your birth. So, don’t write autobiography. The classical forms of autobiography are called apologia, oration, and confession. Apologia are written as self-justifications for one’s actions. Orations are written to document one’s literary talents in description of one’s successes. And confessions are written about racy events or radical ideas with self-criticism such as Augustine’s and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiographical Confessions. Real life accounts written by an author whose storytelling serves to protect ego, flaunt id, or appease superego misses the mark of the memoir genre.
The time parameters of a memoir are different from the chronological structure dictated by the memoir of autobiography and biography. Biography is the life story of an individual written by another, sometimes in collaboration or authorized, more often long after the passing of the person from this earth. Most often biographies are written about leaders, celebrities, historical and public figures. If you’re not already famous, biography is not the genre for writing your personal memories.
You can only have one autobiography, but you can write countless memoirs. Gore Vidal described memoir as how one remembers one’s own life experiences. But it is not fiction; the author tells their own truth based on their own eyewitness accounts. Be self-aware about the tricks memory can play and pursue an authentic accounting. Pull out your photograph albums, portraits, letters, journals, and notebooks and reminisce.
Memoir is a slice of your life. Which slice? Carving out the time parameters from your memoir writing begins by playing with your own memory.
Start by closing your eyes and let that movie play in your head of those crystal clear recollections from your lifespan. Memories in moments. Moments you can’t forget. The ones that a smell can invoke. Memories jogged by the weather, or how a garment feels, or the taste of a seasonal dish. Engage your sense in the recollection.
Lisa Dale Norton calls these memories “shimmering images.” Those lucid moments from your past that you can bring into the palm of your hand and begin to describe in detail. Select one of these fleeting moments as it is frozen in time and put the picture into thousands of words to capture its full richness.
As you write these lucid memories down, sit on your editor’s hand. No cross-outs, no edits, no concern with sentence structure or spelling. Your stream of consciousness record of observations about this moment in time provides a rough draft for a first vignette.
When you are first beginning to write your memoir, creating rough drafts of your memories about these moments lets the structure of your memoir emerge in an organic manner.
Since a memoir is intended for others to read, the writer must provide enough specifics and details that the reader can fully comprehend the memory, its import and emotional weight. Where were you? When was this? How old were you then? What else was going on there, then? Who is present in this moment? What are their relationships to the writer and each other? What are their motives in this moment? How old are they? Where are they and what are they doing or saying? What actions transpired? What did you see? What did you hear? What did you smell, touch, taste?
As you begin to write about these moments, spend eighty percent of your words on description. Then take your time sorting out for yourself the meaning or import or moral of this story. As you begin to revise and think about how these memories relate to one another, this 20% of your draft will reveal the themes, plot lines, character motivations, and other clues as to the memoir’s narrative arc.
You’ll be looking to organize your vignettes in alignment with points along a dramatic arc. Don’t begin at the beginning or tell your story chronologically. Start near an “inciting incident” and you weave backstory in along the route of escalating events. Looking for that point in your life when everything seemed to change and look for a climax to your narrative arc when you have been transformed by the changes. Memoir is a story of personal transformation worth sharing.
Start writing yours.