Memoir Writing: Which Stories to Tell & Which to Leave Out

salim73So you’re writing a memoir, and maybe you’ve begun to feel overwhelmed. Your life is just so…big, right? You’ve experienced years and years worth of stuff. You can’t possibly write about all of it, because you’d be spending the rest of your life in front of a computer. Some stories you definitely want to include, but others will have to be left out.

With so much material to choose from, how can you possibly decide?

Let your theme be your guide.

Many memoirs have an overarching theme, and it’s a good idea to keep yours in mind when you’re writing. Not only can it help you decide which stories to tell and which to leave out, but it can also help keep you from wandering off on writing tangents that don’t really belong in your memoir.

But what is a theme, exactly?

Think of a memoir as a necklace – say, a string of pearls. Each pearl is a story from your life.  Those stories are strung together on a ribbon or a chain. Think of that chain as your theme.

You could potentially tell thousands of stories about things that happened to you in your life, but if the theme of your memoir is conquering cancer, you probably don’t need to tell the story about your first slow dance in the sixth grade – unless it has some bearing on your battle with cancer.

Don’t know what your memoir’s central theme is? That’s O.K. Typically, a memoir’s theme will reveal itself after you’ve started writing.  In fact, once you get clear about what “theme” is, I urge you to promptly forget about it.  At least for a little while.

Themes are often unconscious. They bubble up in the back of your mind while you’re busy with storytelling. A theme shouldn’t be over-thought.

But you should also keep in mind that many memoirs, if you look at them closely, have more than one theme lingering just beneath the surface. Some themes might appear in some chapters but not in others, ebbing and flowing throughout the pages of the book. Nevertheless, there should be one major theme that ties all of your anecdotes together.

memoir-plantThink about a gardener planting a seed.  The gardener tucks the seed safely under a layer of moist soil, then leaves it alone. Sure, he’s always there in the background, making sure the ground is watered and gets plenty of sun. But he doesn’t go outside and poke at the ground ten times a day, looking for signs of life. At least not if he wants to grow a healthy plant.

Consider this blog post the sunshine and rain your theme needs to be stirred into a seedling, and then into a robust, blooming plant. Read it, understand it, then let your theme be urged to the surface gently, in its own good time.

That said, keep an eye out for those hints of green emerging from the soil. If something like a theme strikes you while writing, or even while washing the dishes or driving to the supermarket, simply notice it.

So what are some examples of “theme” in a memoir?  Here are a few:

  • Abandonment is something you never get over
  • American women sacrifice their happiness to body image concerns
  • You can’t stop change
  • A sense of community is disappearing from our towns and cities
  • Determination is admirable but it can also kill you
  • Faith heals emotional wounds
  • Denial leads to eventual unhappiness
  • No matter how wide the generation gap, music can bring people together
  • Heroes are an example to our children
  • Immigrants are hard-working people
  • A jealous spouse leads to an unhappy marriage
  • Peer pressure helps shape who we are, for better or worse
  • Some people will do anything to survive
  • Experiencing war was horrifying, but it made me into a man

death be not proudWant some more specific examples? O.K. Take Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther. In this memoir, Gunther writes about his son, Johnny, who died of a brain tumor at the age of seventeen. Johnny endured multiple surgeries and great discomfort during the fifteen months between his diagnosis and death. However, he was a brave kid. Despite the difficulties he faced, Johnny continued to engage enthusiastically with life, all throughout his illness. He continued to socialize, kept up with his schoolwork, and remained intellectually curious. And he was mindful of keeping his fears to himself in order to spare the feelings of others.

I’d say the main theme of this memoir is facing death with courage.

However, you could also argue for some additional themes in Death Be Not Proud. For example, you could also say this memoir is about relishing life. Johnny had a deep interest in science and never stopped engaging his brain with the wonders of the world around him – even when that brain harbored disease. He continued with his scientific experiments throughout his illness. He didn’t fear dying so much as he feared not living – because he loved the experience of life so much.

We could identify yet another theme in Death Be Not Proud: childhood versus manhood. As Johnny faces his illness and impending death, he is described by his father as existing somewhere between childhood and manhood. In one way, at the age of seventeen, Johnny is between childhood and manhood. In another way, Johnny continues to love life with the guilelessness of a child, yet he rapidly develops an elegant maturity in dealing with his circumstances.

So, we have a pretty clear overarching theme here: facing death with courage, but interwoven in Johnny’s story are the additional themes of love of life and existing somewhere between childhood and manhood.

The next time you have a quiet moment, sit and think about the memoir you want to write. Visualize it in your mind as though you’re watching a movie. Keep a pad of paper and a pen in your lap while you do this. If it helps to close your eyes, go for it. If you associate certain songs with key moments in your life, listen to them while you do this exercise. Imagine they are the soundtrack of your memoir-movie.

On that movie screen in your imagination, what images do you see? What bits of dialogue do you hear? Who are the characters on-screen? What’s going on?

Without breaking your stride too much, jot down a word or two that will help you recall these images later. You might even be clever enough to do this without opening your eyes.

Next, look at your notes and ask yourself, what stories do these images, snippets of dialogue,  and characters represent? What is this “movie” about? Write down your answers.

Now, look over everything you’ve written. Do you see certain themes emerging again and again?

What themes keep coming up in your stories over and over?

If you see the same (or related) themes repeatedly, there’s a good chance those will be the main themes of your memoir. But keep an open mind, because after you actually start writing, other, stronger themes may emerge.

Later, when the first draft of your manuscript is finished, you’ll begin the editing process. At that point, you may want to look for stories in your manuscript that have no connection with your main themes. You may find they don’t gel with the rest of the book. That’s a good indicator that those stories should get cut and maybe saved for a future memoir.

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011).

Are All Memoirs Written in the “First Person”? Not Necessarily.

Are all memoirs written in first person? Not necessarily. When it comes to writing a memoir, why bother discussing point of view? After all, aren’t all memoirs written from the first person point of view?

Not necessarily.

In most cases, yes — memoir does tend to be written from the first person point of view.  This is the POV of “I”.  “I climbed onto the motorcycle.  I put my arms around Joe’s waist.  I gulped as the bike lurched forward.”  First person is all about the person telling the story – the narrator.

Here’s an example of a memoir written in first person.  This is the opening of The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White by Shrilee Taylor Haizlip:

Sometimes I look at people and wonder if they are related to me.  I do this in public places and private spaces.  There I am, in airport terminals, and train stations, on ballroom floors and sandy beaches, studying people who might be my relatives. 

Not only does first person make sense for memoir, but it makes for the most intimate possible experience for the reader.  When you write in first person, you have the best chance of making your reader feel like they’re in the room with you – or sitting next to you in the cockpit, or huddled against you in the storm cellar.

Compare that to a story told from the third person point of view: “April climbed onto the motorcycle.  She put her arms around Joe’s waist.  She gulped as the bike lurched forward.”

With the third person point of view, you’re describing to the reader what’s happening in a scene.  You and the reader are watching events together, from the outside.  This point of view feels a degree or two removed from the action, and as a result, it can come across as less “personal” than first person.

It might seem like the third person point of view has no place in a memoir, but actually, some memoirists have used it creatively and with success.  I’ll give you an example.  In one scene in The Men in My Country by Marilyn Abildskov, she uses the third person point of view to recall a memory of herself as though she is watching a stranger in action.  Here’s a passage:

One night he is supposed to call at 6 P.M., which he does, but she doesn’t get the message until an hour later when she is immersed in a class at the ABC School, filling in for a teacher who failed to show.

            When she calls him at seven, there’s no answer at his place.  So she calls again at eight, then at nine, and again at ten.  Finally, before midnight, he answers his phone, sounding angry and maybe a little drunk.

            So you don’t want to get together? the woman asks, disappointed that he’s not as eager to see her as he is to see him.  All she wanted that night was to hear his voice.  Now that she has his voice, his voice in her ear, it isn’t enough.  Whatever she has, she will always want more.  The stakes go up.  This is her way of life.  Her way of love.  She wants to see him, even if it’s only for a few minutes, just to say goodnight.  And if she sees him?  She will want to touch him.  And then?

It’s important to note that most of Abildskov’s memoir is written in the first person, which is typical.  However, in this particular scene, she uses the third person.  Why?  It’s an act of artistry.  In my opinion, she’s doing it to help us sense how she now feels about that woman she’s remembering – as if she’s a different person.  Haven’t you ever looked back on something you did or said as a younger person and thought, Who was that girl/guy?  An earlier, less wise version of yourself can feel like a stranger.  If you’ve changed significantly in your life, recalling something you did in the past can almost feel like watching a play or a movie.  I believe Abildskov was using the third person as a device to help us understand how distanced she feels from that once desperate woman.

Then, there’s the god-like omniscient point of view.  I say “god-like” because it’s the only point of view that knows all and sees all, as only a god could.

If you’re writing in the omniscient point of view, you can describe what April was thinking as she sped away on the motorcycle.  You can also tell us what Joe was thinking when April put her arms around him. You know how the weather’s going to change a mile down the road, and you can hint at it to the reader using foreshadowing – even if the characters have no idea they’re headed for rain.

Writing in the omniscient point of view can feel empowering.  It can feel magical.  There are no limits.

wtmrn4On the downside, however, a reader of the omniscient point of view can sometimes struggle to make an emotional connection with any one character.  It’s a lonely business, being a god.  And when you share with your reader all that god-like knowledge, you risk imparting a sense of loneliness – a separateness from your characters.

Finally, there’s something called the second person point of view.  I’ve saved it for last because it’s the least commonly used POV – probably because it’s so difficult to pull off.  Second person is what I call the point of view of “you”.  Let me show you the second person in action first before I explain it:

You start the first day of school with such high expectations.  You think this’ll be the year when you finally break out, make your mark, achieve popularity.  You never set out to have the most miserable year of your life.

I just made up that passage.  It could’ve been an excerpt from a memoir, written by a real person about their real life; or, it could’ve been the voice of a make-believe character in a novel.  Either way, you’d still call it the second person POV.

Notice the use of “you”?  With second person, the narrator is talking about his or herself, but using the word “you”.  I know, sounds complicated.  Think of it this way: have you ever heard someone use second person in conversation?  At some point, you may have done it yourself.

Imagine you just came from the Department of Motor Vehicles.  You’re meeting your friend Lois for lunch.  You approach Lois who’s sitting waiting for you at a coffee shop table, and you say:

“Y’know, you can call ahead to the DMV and you can ask all the right questions.  You can find out exactly what you need to bring and who to see.  You can even get there early and wait in line at the front door.  But somehow, you always end up getting the run-around.”

You just spoke using the second person point of view.

Sure, you said “you” to Lois – but you were actually talking about your own experience, not hers.

Back to memoir.  Does anyone ever use the second person “you” point of view in memoir?  It’s rare, but it’s been done.  You might be hard-pressed to find an entire memoir written in second person (I can’t think of any), but you will occasionally spot it within a first person memoir.

Let’s open Marilyn Abildskov’s The Men in My Country again.  We’ve already seen how she used the third person point of view to help create a sense of distance between herself as the more experienced narrator, and herself at an earlier time.  Now, here’s an example from the same book in which Abildskov slips in a little second person POV:

At school they write messages on the bottom of composition books, little lost boats you have the urge to keep and save.  KEEP OO JAMMIN in all caps.  Or questions that sail in on paper scraps, tiny letters in bottles that sail across the sea.  Do Marilyn-sensei like Guns and Roses? A little, you lie. You believe in kindness over honesty.

Did you spot it?  The second person point of view?  The point of view of “you”?  It’s in the very last line of the passage:

A little, you lie. You believe in kindness over honesty.

You lie.  You believe in kindness over honesty.

The person who actually did the little-white-lying in this scene is the author.  But she says it conversationally, as if to suggest that this is what anyone would do – what you might do in the same situation.

So while chances are excellent that your memoir will be written in the first person point of view, there are certainly ways that other points of view can be useful.  I recommend starting out in the first person, and see if you lapse into another POV somewhere down the line.  Instead of automatically correcting it, you might step back and ask yourself if a small portion might actually be served by using another point of view in an artistic way.

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011).

No, Your Memoir’s Audience Isn’t “Everybody”

wtmrn2Are you planning on writing your memoir, hiding it in a locked drawer, and then burning it on your deathbed?  In that case, your memoir is definitely between you and you, and there’s no reason for you to read this article.

However, if you plan on letting anyone else read your finished memoir – whether it’s family members, or any stranger who happens to buy a copy – then this article is for you.

When you write a memoir (or anything else, for that matter), you’re writing to someone.  No, not in quite the same way you’d write a letter or an e-mail.  But there’s going to be someone on the other end of your message: your reader.

If you’re hoping to make a huge splash with your memoir, then you’ll obviously want your memoir to have many readers.  Those readers, collectively, are your audience.

Regardless of what you’re writing – whether it’s a magazine article, an academic essay, or a memoir —  it’s important to keep your readers in mind.

There’s a good chance you’ve written for a specific audience before but didn’t realize it.

Here’s an example.  Say you’re on vacation in Mexico.  You promised postcards to everyone you know.  One day you’re reclining on a cushioned lounge beneath a grass umbrella, just ten feet from a gentle lick of turquoise surf.  You’re leaning your forearms on a book in your lap and shuffling a stack of glossy postcards.  You take the pen out from behind your ear and begin to write:

Dear Mom:

The resort is beautiful.  You’d love the lunch buffet.  It reminds me of the spread on your 60th birthday cruise. Weather has been perfect.  Miss you and can’t wait to see you.  I have a pretty souvenir for you!

Next, you choose a fresh card and begin scribbling a note to your best friend and former college roommate:

Hey Barfbag,

Too bad you’re missing this orgy of loose women and free-flowing booze, you loser.  Haven’t been sober since I landed!  See ya for Joe’s Superbowl party on the 12th.

And finally, you write that obligatory postcard to the office, which will inevitably be posted on the break room refrigerator for your boss and all to see:

Hi gang,

Enjoying a break in sunny Mexico.  Thanks to everyone who worked so hard on the Davis deal last month.  Hope you’re all enjoying those normal hours again!  Looking forward to sharing a box of spicy Mexican chocolate when I return. 

You wouldn’t write the same way – or mention all the same things – to everyone you wrote to.

The tone you use in writing to your mother (affectionate, thoughtful) will be vastly different from the tone you use with your college buddy (informal, sarcastic).  That tone will change slightly again when you address your boss and co-workers (friendly, polite).

Likewise, you’ll choose different words to address different people.  For mom: “beautiful”, “perfect”, “pretty”.  For the best friend: “barfbag”, “orgy”, “loser”.  And finally, for the workplace: “enjoying”, “thanks”, “sharing”.

Additionally, the content of your story will change to suit the reader.  Regardless of whom you speak to, you’re talking about the same trip to Mexico.  However, you’ll be selective about what you share about that experience, depending on whom you’re addressing.  You told your mom about things that would be important to her: “The resort is beautiful.” “You’d love the lunch buffet.”  “I miss you and can’t wait to see you.”  You leave out the part about the women and drinking.

But when it’s time to address your buddy, you don’t bother mentioning the weather or the lunch buffet – he wouldn’t care about that.  Instead, you mention “loose women” and “free-flowing booze,” plus the upcoming “Superbowl party on the 12th.

Your co-workers hear about “sunny Mexico,” and you promise to bring them some “spicy Mexican chocolate”.  You’re courteous and keep things professional.

That’s how you gear your writing toward a specific audience.

Now, if I ask you whom you want the audience for your memoir to be, you might say, “Everybody!  I want everyone in the world to buy my memoir.”  But that’s not going to happen.  You might sell your memoir to a lot of people – but who are they?  Or maybe more importantly, who do you want them to be?

When you write for an audience of “everyone”, you risk writing something dull, watered-down and uninteresting. Your writing will be more engaging if you write to a specific group of people. Knowing your audience has two big benefits.

First, it helps you write better.  Instead of writing a bland manuscript for “everyone,” you’ll feel freer to write in specifics.  Second, having a clear picture of your audience helps you develop a sales and marketing strategy.

Let me also make it clear that even if you have a specific audience in mind, that doesn’t mean someone outside of that audience won’t read and enjoy your book, but having a narrow focus in mind when you’re writing is crucial.

Decide ahead of time exactly to whom you’re writing.  You’ll write a better book.

At a reading/booksigning for Read My Hips at Barnes & Noble.

Kim Brittingham is the author of Read My Hips: How I Learned to Ditch Dieting, Love My Body and Live Large, and Write That Memoir Right Now.


How to Be a Happy Memoirist: Surviving Emotionally-Charged Writing

emoHow do you stay happy while you’re writing about unhappy things?  Is there one concrete thing we can do to develop a sort of “memoirist’s Teflon”, a state wherein we can write about our most gut-wrenching memories in stinging detail — but be able to step away from the desk with every hair in place?

To get more insight into the psychological ramifications of writing a memoir, I decided to pick the brains of a few other writers who’ve gotten through the big bad memoir-writing process and lived to tell about it.

girlbomb“Well, it was obviously no fun to dwell on painful memories – I got angry, I got sad, I got sentimental, and I got angry some more,” Janice Erlbaum, author of Girlbomb told me. “But out of all the painful memories I had to re-encounter, it was especially hard for me to write about doing hard drugs, because I had to remember and recreate mental and physical sensations that I really didn’t want to experience anymore. I’d find my heart pounding uncomfortably hard when I wrote about being on cocaine, or I’d get a paranoid, dissociated feeling when writing about taking acid. One night I was writing about doing coke, and I freaked out and called a friend and went straight to her apartment, because I didn’t feel like I could stand to be alone right then. It was a very desperate, coked-up feeling.”

Erin Vincent wrote her memoir Grief Girl about her parents being in a road accident when she was 14.

griefgirl“I decided to write it in my teenage voice, so forced myself to relive everything,” she said. “I realize now that I retraumatized myself. Some days as I wrote, my body would be covered in hives. I went to the hospital one night with internal bleeding, felt exhausted most of the time…I became depressed for a while. Some days I could only write for 15 minutes before needing a nap!”

Janice suffered some similar exhaustion and psychosomatic phenomena:

“I experienced a period of intense exhaustion, where I thought I had narcolepsy or leukemia or multiple sclerosis or something, because I’d be working on the book, and I’d get so dizzy and tired that I’d have to lay down on the floor by my desk and shut my eyes for a while.”

But, Janice also says, “It got easier with each draft. The first draft was the hardest, and then I had to go deeper for the second draft. But I’d already had some practice in confronting the material, so at least none of it was a surprise anymore. By the third draft, I could see it as a story with characters, and not so much as real people and events. And now it’s like someone else wrote it; it feels so distant from my current life.”

David Matthews, author of Ace of Spades, had a completely different experience.

aceofspades“I didn’t find the process of writing about painful things to be inherently painful. I think that for me, I was cushioned a bit in that I was a writer who decided to write a memoir, rather than an individual who just wanted to tell my story. Being a writer enabled me to approach the subject matter as a work, rather than something that had happened ‘to’ me.”

So there may be some hope of a painless process yet! But what if your memoir-writing experience does end up being as visceral as Janice or Erin’s? Will that really be such a bad thing?

“I had to revisit some very painful experiences, and own up to things I’d done that I really wasn’t proud of,” Janice admits. “But now that I’ve been honest about those things, I’m glad – writing the book helped me put a lot of old demons to rest.”

Aside from getting some kind of personal pay-off from surviving an emotional writing journey, perhaps the trip will be more bearable if we can get over ourselves and think of how the final product might serve someone else. Wade Rouse, author of three memoirs including Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler, points out:

americasboy“(Writing a memoir is) not for the weak of heart, and there is great risk, not the least of which is emotionally. But you know by writing your truth you are helping someone else reach his. You also know that people will, undoubtedly, be hurt in some way, big or small, by what you are sharing. Still, the very best memoirs force us to hold up a collective mirror to our faces and take a good, long, hard look at our lives, even though they reflect someone else’s.”

In order to write her memoir My One-Night Stand With Cancer, Tania Katan got visceral with her memories on purpose.

“In order to access all of the feelings around cancer, chemotherapy, toxic relationships and unsavory phlebotomists, I had to go back and experience all of those things in my body. I would sit with a stack of journals and start reading about being in the oncologist’s office awaiting treatment, and that would trigger a vivid image of me in that space, and soon I was feeling the prick of the needle in my vein and tasting the bleach-like chemicals in my mouth. That’s the only way for me to write an accurate description of what I went through and by doing so, I allow my audience to experience these things as if they’re going through it, too.”

onenightWade told me, “It’s impossible to pen a memoir—about any piece of your life—by distancing yourself from your life. You must laugh, and cry, and scream, and writhe, just like you did the first time. That’s when you know you’re getting it right … and real.”

I asked Erin: Do you think one sacrifices an intensity of writing by attempting to keep past emotions at a distance?

“Absolutely! That’s why I immersed myself in my past. I wanted ‘Grief Girl’ to be raw and immediate. I wanted the reader to feel they are there with me.”

Janice agreed. “Unfortunately, I think you have to be a ‘method writer’ – you have to use your emotions in the same way actors do in order to perform well. You have to dredge up the ugly stuff and use it, or your writing will be flat.”

So I guess we all just have to batten down the hatches and hold on tight. If you’re determined to write a memoir, you’ll want to bring forth the most remarkable work you have in you. Be willing to dig deep, to sob and pummel pillows. Surely, though, there are SOME things we can do to minimize the trauma and stay positive.

Janice confided, “I’ve been in therapy for the last eleven years; my book is dedicated to my shrink, Judith. There’s no way I could have come to a place in my life where I was stable and happy and motivated enough to tackle this project had I not been in therapy. She cheered me through the draft, and held my hand through the really hard parts.”

Therapy was also helpful to Tania, “both creatively and personally. It doesn’t hurt to learn about yourself in-depth when you’re trying to write about yourself in-depth, you know?”

Janice found other ways to keep the more bleak aspects of her memoir from coloring her here-and-now (which may be especially helpful if you can’t afford a therapist):

“I tried to have as much fun in the present as possible. And I tried to treat writing like it was any other job. I set goals, and rewarded myself for working hard.”

“My advice would be to think of the protagonist of your memoir as a character, rather than as a literal (no pun intended) version of yourself,” David suggested. “The protagonist (who only happens to be you) suffers, laughs, loves—the writer (who also only happens to be you) records these events in an exciting, meaningful, and truthful way. You’re the court stenographer.”

Tania had a great idea:

“Keep two journals. One is the Emotional Journal. The other is the Writing Journal. Allow yourself the freedom to write all of the feelings and fucked up thoughts you have in your Emotional Journal without editing. Let the words sit for a bit, then go back and read. See how fucked up you were just a few days ago. Smile and relish in the fact that you have grown. Now get dressed and grab your Writing Journal and start crafting a coherent story. When you feel like you are not being true to the emotional content of your story, go back to your Emotional Journal and access the real, raw stuff. But whatever you do, don’t mistake one journal for the other. Both serve a purpose. One is a soliloquy and the other is a dialogue.”

Since Wade’s first memoir America’s Boy was composed of short chapters and vignettes from his life, he says he “tried to intersperse the difficult parts with big doses of humor, and memories of good times. That helped me come back from the abyss many times.”

Wade’s experience is a reminder that we’re not required to write our first drafts in any prescribed order. We don’t have to write chronologically or linearly. When we get through a rough chapter, we’re free to give ourselves a break by working on a “fun part” before diving into another harrowing event from the past. We’re in control. (Why is that so hard to remember?)

What memoirists like Janice, Tania, David, Erin and Wade have shared with me only reaffirms what I think I already knew. My fellow memoirist-in-the-making Mary Elizabeth said it best:

“…as you’re writing and reliving things, you’re deeply aware that you got through them.”

Hey…that’s right. We got THROUGH our pasts! We made it!

We’ve got everything we need to make the journey back again. We know the terrain. In fact, each of us is the world’s foremost expert on our own pasts! Plus, we’re going back armed with the insight of age and experience. You’ve got my own experience, and the travel tales that “been-there” memoirists have been kind enough to share.

Memory & Perception in Memoir: Is One Person’s “Inaccuracy” Another Person’s “Truth”?

wtmrn1Funny things, memory and perception. They can make a single event seem like three completely different experiences to three different people – all of whom were at the same place, at the same time.

When I’m teaching groups of first-time memoirists, there’s always someone who fears being accused of lying. And yes, there’s always a chance that someone might read your finished memoir and say, “Hey, that’s not exactly how it happened!”

Naturally, I encourage you to tell the truth. You certainly shouldn’t be fabricating anything; that would be fiction, not memoir.

However, after your sister reads your memoir for the first time, she could point a finger and say, “Hey, you wrote that Uncle Jerry’s 40th birthday barbecue was on a Saturday, but I know for a fact it was on a Wednesday. I know because when we came home, we sat on the family room floor and watched The Facts of Life, and that was always on a Wednesday. And by the way, Mommy was not wearing her culottes that day. She’d already ripped them by then, and recycled the material for a throw pillow for my bed.”

Even if your sister’s 100% correct, that doesn’t necessarily mean your writing is untrue.

So you remember that day differently than she does. So what. What’s important is that your entire family was together when Uncle Jerry got that chicken bone wedged in his throat, had to be rushed to the hospital, and lost the ability to speak forevermore.

Over time, small details can blur and merge in our memories. What’s more important in a memoir scene is what transpired and how you felt.

Here’s another example. You and your brother could’ve had an explosive argument, during which he confessed to kissing your wife on New Year’s Eve when you were in bed with the flu. If we were to ask you about it ten years later, you might remember the room being ice cold, your brother sneering in arrogant satisfaction, a feeling of impending nausea lurking at the back of your throat.  But if we asked your brother about the same argument that same ten years later, he might remember the room feeling uncomfortably close, his own heart racing and a dew of hot dread forming on his forehead. He might recall your strange indifference, the way you sat there staring at the wall, as if you didn’t care at all. He felt a pang of pity for your wife and disgust for your apathy and let out a bitter, ironic laugh.

Same scene, two perceptions.  But can we honestly say that either of you are lying about what happened?  No.

Want to have a little fun with this? Write down a memory of a time, place, or situation from your past. Next, interview someone who was also there. Without giving away anything you wrote, ask him or her to detail the event. Compare your recollections. I guarantee the results will be fascinating.

Sit back, listen and get inspired to complete your memoir.  Learn how.

Hmm…Are You SURE You’re Writing Your “Biography”?

wtmrnblog2I do a fair amount of work on Twitter these days, both for myself and for clients whose social media I oversee.  And I do spend time where the writers are.

As I’m navigating the various profiles and tweet streams of my fellow wordsmiths, I occasionally stumble upon the profile of an aspiring author who insists he’s writing his…biography.

I must admit, I cringe a little.  Not because I’m being a judgmental jerk, but because I want this guy to succeed.  Oftentimes it’s obvious the writer is trying to be taken seriously, and hoping to get “discovered” by a Twitter-roaming literary agent or acquisitions editor.  So I cringe because I know this person isn’t clear on what a biography is — and I know he should be, if he intends to be treated like a professional.

Writing your biography is somebody else’s job — not yours.  The author of a biography is writing about the life of someone else.  Typically biographies are about the rich and famous: actors, corporate giants, star athletes, politicians.

When you’re writing a true story about yourself, you’re either writing a memoir or an autobiography.

Okay, what’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?

An autobiography is a book the author writes about himself, but it tends to be broad in scope, covering all the major events and phases of his life.  In an autobiography, you’re likely to learn about the author’s birthplace, his parents and siblings, his education, career, marriages, children, etc.  This is why autobiographies are usually written by older people.  An autobiography takes a birds-eye view of the author’s entire life — so if you’re, say, 21 years old and you expect to stick around for a while, it doesn’t make sense to write your autobiography.  You’ve still got a lot of living left to do.  What you want to write will most likely be a memoir.

A memoir focuses on a narrow sliver of the author’s life. Rather than covering all the major areas of an individual’s experience, it gives the reader a more detailed glimpse into just one part of that life. That one part can be defined in many different ways, such as a period of time, an emotional challenge, or an illness or other adversity.

And by the way, this is why it’s possible for one author to write multiple memoirs. He hasn’t lived more than one life – he’s simply writing separate books about separate aspects of his life.

For example, let’s look at the multiple memoirs of Wade Rouse and Josh Kilmer-Purcell.

Josh Kilmer-Purcell debuted on the literary scene with his memoir I Am Not Myself These Days in 2006, which was about his adventures as a female impersonator.  Later, in 2011, Josh published The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir.  Two books about two very different periods in his life.

Wade Rouse has written several memoirs, including Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler, a book that tells tales from a time when he worked in a high-brow prep school. In his book America’s Boy, Wade wrote about the challenges of growing up gay in the Missouri Ozarks in the 1960s and ‘70s. In still another memoir, At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream, Wade relates the story of moving to rural Michigan and adjusting to life in the remote woods.

Memoirs also tend to be more personal and reflective than autobiographies. Think about it – an autobiography has a lot of ground to cover. It’s a summary of a person’s entire life.

But a memoir has more room to breathe. The author has gained some distance between herself and her experience and has identified how that experience has changed her. Memoirs helps us learn more about ourselves by looking deeply into what others have learned about themselves.

– Kim Brittingham