So you’ve decided to write your memoir. Good for you! It’s great that you’re up for the challenge.
Before you start amassing stories, beginning from your most traumatic potty-training memory right up through the jerk in the maroon SUV who cut you off in traffic this morning, you may want to tap the literary brakes for a moment. I need you to remember the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. Let’s think of your life in terms of baked goods, okay? (I love baked-goods analogies.) If an autobiography is a whole cake, a memoir is a slice of cake. It’s made up of several layers (which, to be honest, can be dry at times), with a contrasting, flavorful filling to piece them together, and a glossy, unifying frosting that holds the whole thing together.
While an autobiography spans an entire life, a memoir narrows the scope and focuses on a particular aspect of the author’s life. Within that aspect, you can group together several facets of your life and draw them together in a nice little package.
How should you decide what to include in your memoir? Here’s an interesting article that outlines four key things to consider before you sit down to write.
Why Write a Memoir, Anyway?
Your memoir should hold a message for readers. After all, that’s why you’ve written it: so the world could benefit from your experience. Right? You want readers to finish the book, close the cover and reflect on the profundity of your words. Or look back on it fondly. Or perhaps smile (if not outright laugh themselves silly all the way through, if you happen to have that particular gift—read Bob Newhart’s I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This: And Other Things That Strike Me as Funny for an excellent example of a hilarious memoir).
Perhaps the best advice I ever read about memoir writing was, “Avoid beginning at the beginning.” Seems counterintuitive, but as with any good story, if you can start in medias res—in the midst of the action—you stand a better chance of hooking (and grabbing) readers, and pulling them along for what they hope will be an eventful ride.
Your Unique Voice is the Key to a Successful Memoir
You may be lamenting, “But I lead such an ordinary, run-of-the-mill existence! Who’s going to care what I have to say?”
The point is, while you may believe you’ve led an unremarkable life, only you can tell your story. It’s your voice that makes the difference between a ho-hum tale and a whiz-bang gotta-read-it story. Part of what comprises voice is your word selection. Another component is your writing style. A third factor is the ability to properly evoke emotion within your storytelling. This article elaborates beautifully on the topic of voice.
My favorite editor presented me this pearl 20 years ago: “Write how you speak.” Write so anyone who knows you (and your voice) can read it and say, “I know exactly who wrote that!” Convey your story as only you can. That’s how your authentic voice will come through.
When you write in an authentic, true-to-you voice, your writing shines. It doesn’t mean everyone will necessarily be enraptured with it; but it does mean the writing will originate from your core. When that happens, your style will be genuine, realistic … and valid.
Whatever else you do—however you choose to approach writing your memoir—please promise me one thing: Be true to your voice. Don’t convince yourself you need to write like Frank McCourt or Jeannette Walls or Diablo Cody. Write your story your way.
Ignore the Cynics and Just Write!
Years ago, a bitter, critical woman in my writers’ group chided, “How can you ever expect to write like James Joyce if you don’t [insert scalding, demeaning criticism here] …” I replied, “But I don’t want to write like James Joyce. I want to write like Rita Reali.” The old bird heaved an impatient sigh and said she had no idea who that even was.
I grew up being told by my family nothing I had to say mattered, and nothing I said could possibly ever be of any interest to anyone. It took years to overcome their harsh naysaying, but I didn’t let it stop me. I refused to listen to their negativity. I wrote my story. I wrote plenty of stories. Some have been published in national magazines and newsletters; others have won awards. Granted, some are still waiting to be published, but it’s only a matter of time and polishing now, not lack of confidence.
When writing your memoir, employ all your senses to paint your word picture. When you describe something, don’t simply cover the who-what-when-where-why-how of it. You’ve got to go deeper—into the sight, smell, feel, sound, and even the taste of the details. If you’re writing about a traumatic childhood incident at the seashore when you were five, don’t tell us what happened. Put us there. Make us feel the sharp coldness of the water as a sudden wave smacked into you from behind and knocked you forward, on your face. Describe the seaweedy taste of the waves, the sting of the salt in your eyes, and the roughness of the pebbles and broken shells scraping against your hands and knees as you struggled to right yourself. Depict the raucous shrieks of the seagulls overhead mingling with your brother’s cruel laughter as another wave—then another—crashed over your head. Describe the panicky feeling as you inhaled a mouthful of seawater, coughing, and sputtering. Put us with you, in the midst of it all.
Okay, You’re Finished Writing … Now What?
Then, when you’re finished putting together your memoir, and you believe it’s ready to submit it to a professional editor for review, consider running it through a manuscript editor first. But how do you know which one to choose? Here’s a review of six helpful editing tools. Some of them focus chiefly on grammar, spelling and punctuation—and are best suited to early-stage editing. Others will assess passive wording, as well as repetitive words or phrases—aspects of your writing you might not even be aware of. Now, you should realize these tools will not replace a professional editor, but they can reduce the amount of time an editor will need to devote to your manuscript, which, obviously, will save you money in the long run.
Why am I telling you all this? I want you to be prepared. The Institute for Writers is sponsoring its Personal Essay Contest about a trip that didn’t go as planned … and I want you to win. You have ’til the end of July to enter, so polish up your story, hop on over to the contest-entry page, and follow the submission guidelines.
Rita M. Reali is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in Reminisce magazine, the S.H.A.R.E. pregnancy-loss newsletter, and newspapers across Connecticut and Tennessee. She’s spoken about editing at writers’ conferences and delivered presentations on proofreading to several professional groups. Rita also runs an editing and proofreading business, The Persnickety Proofreader, and blogs under the same moniker: https://persnicketyproofreader.wordpress.com. Her debut novel, Diagnosis: Love, was published in 2015; she published her second novel, Glimpse of Emerald, in 2017.