The Top Six Questions Memoir Writers Ask

It’s Day #9 of the Write Nonfiction in November challenge! We’ve covered a lot of ground already, and I thought we’d take a break from the business side of nonfiction writing to talk a bit about actual writing—memoir writing to be exact.

Memoir writing represents an area of nonfiction writing I know much less about, so I’ve asked my friend and Linda Joy Myers, president and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW) to join us today and cover this topic. Recently, however, she and I spoke together during a NAMW teleseminar, and we discovered many ways memoir writers can put to use the tips and tools being offered here in this blog this month to publicize and publish their work. So, I hope memoir writers will take advantage of the great information from WNFiN’s guest bloggers. I also hope those nonfiction writers who have wanted to try their hand at writing a memoir will take advantage of Linda’s experience and wisdom and get to work this month on their memoir or some vignettes.

The Top Six Questions Memoir Writers Ask
By Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D.

Most people are inspired to write a memoir, because they have something significant, such as experiences and lessons, they want to share. Some writers have been capturing their wisdom by journaling for years, but a journal does not constitute a story and it isn’t written for others. A memoir is written to be shared and includes events and situations shaped into a story.

In my work as a memoir coach, I see memoirists struggling with some basic questions. In addition to some basic questions, such as “Where do I start?” and “What do I include?”, they want to know how to deal with family and how much to write. Indeed, memoirists have many questions, so I compiled the top six questions memoir writers ask—questions that all memoir writers must solve as they begin to write their life story. They are:

  • Where do I start?
  • What do I include?
  • Should I just copy my journals?
  • What makes my life interesting to other people?
  • Do I have to write a whole book? (Gasp.)
  • What will my family do when they find out I’m writing a memoir?

Now, here are the answers I typically give when asked these questions.

1.  Where do I start? Begin a memoir, essay or a book with a significant turning points, or moments of change, in your life. It might include the death of your grandmother, the day you fell in love, the moment you found out you were adopted, or the day you discovered you were pregnant. We have many of these moments in our lives. Ask this question: when did my life take a turn from the direction in which it was going? When were the moments of profound change?

Make lists of these turning points, and then begin writing. Choose one turning point that grabs you emotionally, and go with it. You do not have to write in any kind of chronological order. Allow your emotions to be your guide.

2.  What do I include? This is a big question. To craft a memoir you must choose from the overwhelming details in your life. If you begin with turning points, include only what is necessary to give the reader an experience in scene of what happened. You need to interleaf action and feeling, and use sensual details such as taste, sound, texture, and description to create a world the reader can enter.

3.  Should I just copy my journals? I tell memoirists that a journal is not a story, unless the journal was written with a reader in mind—but that’s not what a journal is for. A journal is meant to be private. Most people vent and write randomly in journals, leaving out details, because the writer already knows them.

A memoir is an artistic combining of significant moments to construct a text that brings a reader into your world and gives them an emotional experience.

4.  What makes my life interesting to other people? People who read memoir want to understand themselves better by entering into someone else’s story and learning how they worked things out. Many people are not aware that they have lived an interesting life and that even small moments of a life can inspire others. Stop worrying about whether your life will interest readers, and go about your business of finding the turning points significant to you. You write a memoir for you first and foremost, as a way for you to reflect and learn about yourself and to contemplate your life in new ways. You will learn about yourself as you write, and you will be surprised by what you discover. Stay in the flow of the process of writing. It is your friend and guide. Trust it to lead you into the heart of your story.

5.  Do I have to write a whole book? (Gasp.) Yes, that is how I felt every time I thought of writing a memoir. Feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of my task stalled me for a long time—until one of my mentors said, “Just write one vignette, one small story, at a time. Keep it small, focused and about something important to you.”

That gave me permission to stop being so grandiose in my expectations about writing a book that I was scared into silence. I began writing one significant moment at a time for a few months. When I had quite a few stories, I could see how I might fill in the blanks of my timeline. I didn’t know where my story ended—after all, I was still living my story as I wrote it! As I saw the themes emerge as I wrote, I discovered the arc of my book and the appropriate ending.

After you capture some turning point stories, you may find yourself with several personal essays you can send out for publication. Each vignette or chapter represents a story with a desire, conflict and resolution. Shape your memories and your stories so they have dramatic form. You will find out that you have many small jewels—of your life—that have meaning and that can be shared.

6. What will my family do when they find out I are writing a memoir? It depends on your family! Some family members get worried, rattled and defensive, wondering if they will be portrayed fairly, worrying about secrets being revealed or if you have the “correct” version of the family history. If you share your memoir with family and friends while you are writing it, you run the risk of censoring what you have to say to keep the peace or trying to please everyone, which is impossible. Remember this is your story, and it has to be written from your point of view with your feelings and reactions.

I always recommend that memoir writers create what I call a “safe sacred space” while they create the first draft of their stories. It’s important to guard your creativity from prying eyes. Our early sketches are fragile, like small sprouts, and need to be protected from the winds and weather of the world.

The most important advice I can offer is to begin writing your memoir today! Select your turning points, and immerse yourself in the moments that shaped you. Close your eyes, and see yourself at that moment. Bring it alive in your memory, and begin to write.

Writing your memoir and revealing yourself represents a brave act. It also constitutes one of the most satisfying things you can do. Use the month of November to write 10-30 new vignettes. Keep them short and focused, and do not edit. Just keep writing!

About the Author

Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D. is the President and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers. She is the author of the prize-winning memoir Don’t Call Me Mother. Her new book, The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story will be available in January 2010. Through her workshops, online coaching, and speaking engagements, Linda integrates the principles of healing and creativity in presenting the powerful healing process of writing true stories.

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