Using Novel Writing Techniques in Your Memoir

From Writers in the Storm:

I’ve spent much of our Covid year learning about, editing, and writing my own memoir. Memoir is a form I think every writer should try to tackle at least once. Everyone has a story to tell. The exercise of writing a memoir can sharpen our memories and force us to write outside our comfort zones—always good practice for a writer at any level. If you want to craft a memoir that is truly a page-turner, you can and should use many of your fiction writing tricks.

First Things First: What a Memoir Is and Is Not

It is important to know what a memoir is and is not. A memoir is not your autobiography. A memoir is a slice of your life at a particular time, in a particular place. It is literally your memories put to paper. Some memoirs cover a year in a person’s life. Some memoirs cover several years. Think in terms of a season of your life, rather than a finite block of days on the calendar.

Many new memoirists hamstring themselves by feeling they need to tell their entire life stories, nose to tail, David Copperfield-style. You do not. A memoir focuses on a theme, on a particular red thread that has wound through your life thus far. It is a not a full accounting of all your sins and wins!

A memoir is not a journal entry, even though it is your story. You must write it so that a reader can benefit from it. There must be a compelling reason to keep them turning the pages, such as a lesson they can learn or inspiration for them to find. Memoir can feel navel-gazey in the writing process, but it should never feel navel-gazey on the page. (Yes, I know this is daunting! But persevere.)

What holds a memoir together is a story—your story.

Remember as you write each page that you are telling that story, not making a police report. You can change names to protect people’s privacy. And since you are working from memory, the story will have your slant—don’t feel you have to get every single angle on it. If you ask your family about the picnic you had that one day in 1972, you will get a different story from each member about that day, told from their perspective. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth.

Discover what your truth is and use your memoir to tell it.

An Inciting Incident: You Need One

Telling us about the time you went to the market after work and ran into a friend you hadn’t seen since high school and you exchanged pleasantries with them is not  a gripping inciting incident. Telling us about the time you went to the market after work, ran into a friend you hadn’t seen since high school, and found out they needed a kidney is a start. Deciding to see if you were a match to help them because of that one time in school when they saved you from being assaulted by a teacher? That is a gripping inciting incident.

Don’t invent something that isn’t true, but when you sit down to comb through the sand of your life, you are searching for the pearl that you will hand to your readers. Think of the unusual things. If you don’t think there are any of those pearls, think again. Everyone has as story.

Once I sat in a hotel bar on a business trip and met seven different travelers, from seven different age groups, seven different places, seven different walks of life. Each and every one of them had a compelling story. You do, too. And if you write it well, people will want to read it.

Build Characters

Many new memoirists neglect to see that what they are crafting are characters (who just happen to be real people). You are the “main character” of your memoir.

This is tough for many writers. Do we ever really see ourselves completely objectively? Probably not. But we must do our best. Use the same techniques to craft interesting characters in your memoir that you do in your fiction writing. Make a list of who will appear on the stage of your memoir, and sketch them out, just as you would the players in your novel.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

3 thoughts on “Using Novel Writing Techniques in Your Memoir”

  1. I’m probably an outlier, but of the memoirs I’ve read and liked they don’t seem to fit those parameters at all. One is called “Bits o’ Gossip’ and is by Rebecca Harding Davis, mother of Richard Harding Davis. It’s bits and pieces of what she remembers of growing up and living in the early nineteenth century. Very enjoyable, with some humanizing glimpses of historically revered personages, such as the fellow who may have been Alcott, if not he ran in that circle with Emerson, Hawthorne & others, building a gazebo, IIRC, which you couldn’t actually enter. And a look at Louisa May Alcott and her drive. And finally some understanding of why so many places have memorialized that guy named Fremont. But structure? Lesson? Not that I’ve noticed.

    The other memoirist I’ve enjoyed the most is Adela Rogers St. Johns, who did lead an interesting life, growing up in courtrooms with her father who apparently was the model for Perry Mason, back at the turn of the twentieth century, and then early woman reporter, who went all sorts of places and saw all sorts of things. So, lots of interest and good to hear from someone living through it, like with the Davis… but not noticeably intending to spark a lesson for the most part.

    They are both terrible at placing things in time. It’s easier to track ARSJ once she goes reporter and starts talking about covering the Lindbergh Kidnapping or the abdication crisis in England – those hard points certainly help. Except for the SF earthquake of ’06 in her earlier one I don’t think I know when anything happened.

    It might be an outdated style, I suppose, but it works for me.

    • Outdated? Maybe more true to the form:“written%20record%2C”%20from%20Anglo-French,writer%27s%20own%20memory%20or%20knowledge”%20is%20from%2017c.

      memoir (n.)
      early 15c., “written record,” from Anglo-French memorie “note, memorandum, something written to be kept in mind” (early 15c., Old French memoire), from Latin memoria (from PIE root *(s)mer- (1) “to remember”). The more specific sense of “a notice or essay relating to something within the writer’s own memory or knowledge” is from 17c. Meaning “person’s written account of his or her life” is from 1670s. Related: Memoirist.

      Biography, Memoir. When there is a difference between these words, it may be that memoir indicates a less complete or minute account of a person’s life, or it may be that the person himself records his own recollections of the past, especially as connected with his own life; in the latter case memoir should be in the plural. [Century Dictionary]
      Memoir is supposed to be a personal recollection, not a novelization of the past.
      There’s bound to be enough inaccuracy in the recollections without encouraging embellishment.
      A collection of (even unconnected) anecdotes would strike me as more honest than trying for a Hollywood Template.

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