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Writing the Memoir: Tips for Writing the Memoir

How to write a memoir

Tips for Writing the Memoir

I.  How to Begin

A. You can start in medias res, in the middle of an anecdote, for example, that will build a character or an emotion; this "story" should not last more than one paragraph before your first-person "essay" voice needs to emerge in some direct message or reflection to your reader that then establishes your focus: 

   My mom woke me at the regular time that morning, but the strange tone of her voice told me that something was wrong. As I shook off the covers and rubbed my eyes, she quietly told me to get dressed and come into the kitchen, that she had some bad news to tell me. I began to brace myself for a shock-- I was sure that my dog had died. Soon my brothers and I were sitting on the couch together, fearing the worst, and my mother told us what was wrong. "Boys, your Aunt Rhonda is dead." (from “Aunt Rhonda”)

   Or you can start in the middle of an action, one that will set up an upcoming paragraph that will establish your focus:

I was unafraid of falling as I Ieapt from rock to rock along the quarry rim in an acid January wind; our hike had taken us along the track of a shallow, rocky stream—rather it had taken me down the middle of the stream, by whatever dry protrusions would support my seven-year-old frame.  I was proven; I was sure-footed.  I knew the place of each of my limbs and kept my balance.

For the others, the footpath sufficed. My mother and father climbed with considerable effort; Greg Waugh, my godfather, led his wife Susan and sons, Daniel and Stuart, with an energy near my own.  He was tall, seeming one among the trees; the depth of the woods reflected his narrow form, but for a grey leather jacket and fading jeans, in a few thousand sapling pines and leafless oaks.  He spoke deliberately, with a rasp in his voice.  His force of being pulled the rest along.  (from “Foxwright”)


B. Start with some self-reflection that immediately establishes the focus of your essay and your voice:

Incidents, or rather accidents, as I have found, work their ways into our lives, pushing a childish, fantasy-infested state of life (we all have known) into a state of awareness much higher. Death is one concept which particularly seems to evoke what would be emotion in the disguise of confusion in the inexperienced child. The suicide of my cousin is a misfortune which, alongside the other deaths I confronted in my childhood, was thrown into the back of my mind, receiving no particular consideration in contrast to the immediate thoughts of my mind: baseball cards, birthdays, toothfairies, pogs, ice cream, and so on. Not until last night did I actually resurface the loss of my cousin Patrick. I asked myself why. Particular scenes emerged. An adoption, a seemingly parentless childhood, a divorce, but most notably, a hated father. (from “The Responsibility of the Living”)


C.   Begin with a general description of the time-frame of your memoir to create setting, atmosphere, and the mindset of the person you were at the time of this memory: 

The winter I was thirteen years old, I killed twelve squirrels, two rabbits, and a quail.  I considered this tally impressive because I wasn’t allowed into the woods with a gun until my father got home from work at 4:30, which left less than an hour of shooting light.  That was the year my father finally agreed to take me deer hunting.  He woke me the morning of Opening Day by calling my name the one time he said he would.  I pulled on a pair of long underwear, two pairs of jeans, and four or five pairs of socks.  I shoved my feet into a cheap pair of two-toned, zip-up boots my mother had bought at Pic-N-Pay.  Before I had been awake ten minutes, we were headed in my father’s Volkswagen for the steep, laurelled ridges of Green River Cove, the next county over, the magic country where deer lived. (from Tony Earley’s “Deer Season, 1974")

D.  Begin by getting in your reader’s face, focusing on your subject from the opening line (note the use of anecdote and dialogue to build this fast start): 

For the last three years Mamie had been in a nursing home in my hometown, right around the corner from my mother’s house.  All day long, over and over, she would cry “Momma, Papa” and talk with people four generations gone.  The last time I saw her, tiny and shriveled in her bed, completely blind and almost wholly deaf, she took my hand and said, “Is that the boy?  My boy always was a rascal.”  In her final lucid moment she whispered to my mother, “Put me in the ground next to Percy and close the gate behind you.  I want to go home.”  She was weeping when she died. (from Willie Morris’s “Weep No More, My Lady”)


II.  How to Proceed

 A.  Try to put distance between you and the event, even it happened last summer.  If possible, imagine a forty-year-old thinking back on the events in your essay. This technique will help you to establish your voice, one that is objective yet passionate, observant, and pleasantly self -derisive.

 B.   In one or two nights, write your memoir non-stop in what some call a “fast write,” without questioning your organization, style, or grammar.  Let the whole memory get out onto the page; let one thing lead to another (you’ll find buried memories waiting to be excavated).  At some point you will sense that you have enough written to stop and begin crafting the essay with your audience in mind.

 C.  Keep your audience in mind.  You are writing for a national audience, not people in west Nashville.  That means that you have to enjoy describing what Belle Meade Boulevard suggests about social class, what Franklin means to the white-flight South, what the Nashville skyline looks like. If you insure your reader can see what you are picturing, the essay will achieve a universality because your readers can picture their own streets in yours.

  D.  After you have finished your non-stop “fast write,” determine your focus (or purpose).  Keep that focus in mind always.  If your essay is about the death of a pig, and your father is there for the death of this pig, don’t get off the track and turn the piece into a father-son essay, unless of course that’s what you want.

E.  After you’ve written some 4-5 pages of disorganized memory, begin to divide it up, determining a good place to start and whether you are going to have “parts” to the essay.  In most 4-5 page essays, there are no breaks in the writing; however, your paragraphing will signal certain transitions in time or thought or realization.

F.  By end of the first part (1-3 paragraphs), make sure your “voice” is distinct.  In the sample essays you should note how the writers create their voices to be wryly ironic, or comfortably self-mocking, or satirical, or detached-but-soon-to-become-sympathetic.  Creating “voice” is hard to teach; you have to read your own work aloud to make sure it sounds the way you want it to sound.


III.  Ways To Get the Most Out of the Memory and To Build Your Memoir

 Once you have set up the focus and are into the essay, there are a number of strategic “tricks,” or formulas, you can use to keep your essay immediate and urgent.

A.  Every place that you mention gets a sentence or two of description. Before any character in your essay can do anything, he or she has to be somewhere in which to do it.  Obviously, some places get more attention than others. Use physical details, concrete imagery, and figurative language. Avoid abstractions; think SDT (Show, Don’t Tell).  See Describing a Place for some help.

B.  Every character you mention needs to be described, some characters in more detail than others. A main character will require some specific detail.  Focus on the telling details of their physical description (size, shape, particular body parts, clothes, etcetera, anything that suggests what kind of person they are). "The clothes make the man" is a cliche that holds true in all writing. Again, think SDT.  See Describing a Person for some help.

C.  Let some characters talk. Set up a scene or two that showcases their characteristic phrasing.  A character's directly quoted words should do only one thing: create character. That's it.  Avoid long exchanges of dialogue unless you are using some local-color expressions to build a character or community.

D.  Build in flashbacks to create character, especially in an essay that is about a person, deceased or alive.

E.  One huge tip:  Intersperse whole sentences of self-reflection or, when appropriate, social commentary.  Feel free to digress after an anecdote or in various places in your memoir to comment on your foibles, your family's quirks, your society, whatever. These moments create your voice, a voice that should be discriminating, incisive, wry, ironic, humorous, and plausible.

F.  Don’t fear being “personal” and somewhat confessional, showing the flaws in your own past self that, as the essay proceeds, usually leads to some realization that justifies your writing about this event, tragic or comic as it may be.  You, the writer, should be invoked by nearly every line. (In fiction, typically the writer is absent, and the story is all that matters.  In non-fiction, the writer is always present.)

G.  Humor is a key element to all essays, even darker ones.

H.  Remember always that you are the wise man in the essay, someone who is imparting some wisdom of existence to your audience. This wisdom could reveal itself in a memoir that playfully makes fun of your own naivete or in a serious piece about suicide.


IV.  About Style and Grammar

A.  Observe the rules of sentence structure unless you find a strategic place to use a rhetorical fragment.

B.   Write in conversational, not formal, English.  For example, feel free to end a sentence with a preposition:  “Going shirtless around the house was something my grandmother wouldn’t put up with.”   Or write “Like I said . . . ,” instead of the proper “As I said . . . .”

C.  Avoid such formal transitions as “however,” “thus,” “moreover,” and “therefore.”

D.  Use colloquial language wherever appropriate.

E.  Use the first person.

F.  Write in whatever tense is appropriate.

G.  Use contractions.  

H.  Use many paragraphs, even one-line paragraphs, for effect and delivery.