My advice to the writers in the Workshops I run is to find a half hour in the morning, before your day gets upon you, to write. It’s one of the best creative times of the day — because you can carry forward your subconscious dream work into the writing. Plus, the interruptions of the day that can pull you off your creating haven’t surfaced yet.
— How to start if you have not begun? Think about this: What is the question you are trying to answer with your memoir? The question can change, and it usually will. My own memoir started with “How did I make that happy two weeks of baseball with Nicky? Where did my optimism emerge from?” It has evolved to “What lessons from my father changed my fatherhood route with my son? How did I change the rules for a perfect game?”
If you’re free-writing now, that’s good. Prompts that are helpful are “The story I want to tell is…” and “These are the things I remember. These are the things that I don’t remember.” Believe it or not, even the latter has a way of unearthing memories that make up a memoir.
— You always want to write a memoir from the perspective of I. It’s a story where you are the heroine or the hero. A lot of writing may emerge that uses “we” in family situations and scenarios. Let that unspool, yes. Then look at it again and see where you can experiment with sensory writing — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch — to bring you into the scene as the person experiencing it. Some family events and behavior have to be chronicled, yes. But don’t let yourself, the I, ever drift too far away from the writing.
It helps to know where you’ll go next, too. Write toward the white-hot.
— You want to write toward scenes. You choose events to do this in a memoir. Make lists of events that illustrate the progress toward answering your question. My story of the plastic pitcher with a loose lid, containing V-8 juice that dad shook up and then wore on his white T-shirt when it sprayed all over — sure, a great story. But only use that kind of thing if you can connect it somehow to your question. You can do this. There’s a link there that we love to make. We’re creating meaning out of memories.
— You will want to read memoir while you write it. The Glass Castle should be on everybody’s list, the Jeanette Walls memoir of her childhood and her family. It’s well executed, so you can learn that much from it. The story may even resonate with your own family memories.
Remember you have a unique voice, and you have unique story. Only you can tell this story. Memoir writers write with me once a week, in workshop, using creative spark prompts. But you can also make that time for yourself on other days of the week, and you should be doing that. In class, it only takes us about 20 minutes to make 275 words. That’s a page.
For the time being, do not
— Worry about what your family or lovers will say. This is your story, not theirs.
— Fret about high-accuracy details of the events. Use poetic and dramatic license
— Let yourself be smaller than what takes place in your story. You are the point.
On that last point, as readers we care what happens to you, and how it affects your story about who you are. Plot is the events that take place in a book. Story is about the emotional journey — how those events changed you, the main character. You need both plot and story to create a good memoir. “This happened; here is how it changed me in that time right after it happened.”
Take a deep breath, a whole handful and more of them, before you write.