ARE YOU THINKING OF WRITING A MEMOIR?
I hope you are all well, and finding creative ways to enrich your life, as we tumble through these strange and alarming times. I’m finding it a challenge to stick to my daily writing routine, partly because I’ve been unwell, but mostly because my concentration is poor.
My current work-in-progress is a memoir, as yet, untitled. Not to be confused with autobiography, a memoir focuses on a key aspect of life, one that has had a deep impact. It might be a pivotal point which changes a perspective on the world, a heart-warming story about triumph over adversity, or an epic adventure of escape. Memoir, or life-writing, provides us with an opportunity to analyse and reflect, and in some cases, come to terms with old grievances and pain.
It’s becoming a popular genre, as proved by the plethora of personal mental health and bereavement stories, some of which are ranking on the best seller lists. This squashes the naysayers who are quick to tell you that it is only the lives of celebrities that will attract the interest of agents and publishers. I’m a glutton for stories written by ordinary people from all walks of life; doctors, hairdressers, recovering alcoholics. My current read is “The Last Act of Love” by Cathy Rentzenbrink. The author is taking me on a highly emotional journey, leaving me breathless and reaching for the tissues.
My memoir spans twenty plus years. It covers my tumultuous life with my Iranian husband, before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It culminates at the point when on a visit to his family, he held me and our children hostage. Obviously, it is written solely through my eyes and no matter how accurate I’ve tried to be, I can only be honest and true to a point. The dialogue is manufactured from fragments of remembered conversations powered by overwhelming feelings that continue to haunt me to this day. In my next blog, I’ll talk about how close to the truth do we need to be.
So, let’s start with a few pointers.
If you’ve been drafting ideas for your story, but are scratching your head for the opening, I’d say, don’t start at the beginning. The best memoirs don’t tell their stories chronologically, which is what I did in the first draft of mine. This meant rewriting the first few chapters. Memoirs are written like novels. They need to be compelling, pacey and full of tension to keep the reader hooked. We need to travel the road alongside you, feeling what you felt, rooting for your success and empathising with your struggles. Begin with a life-changing moment, then work backwards filling in the blanks.
You may think you can sit down and write your life story without pausing for breath because you know it so well. I didn’t spend time on a well thought out timeline and this has given my editor some real headaches. It can also result in babies having a two year gestation (my poor daughter), coming back from a place three months before going, just to give you a couple of howlers. It’s easier if you are covering a short period of time, but even then, you need to be clear in your mind about the sequence of events. Readers will pick you up on it. Draw your time line first with bullet points of key events.
Too many people
Take the same approach when it comes to selecting your supporting cast. Your hairdresser might have been your best confidante during a marriage breakdown, but will a dialogue with him/her move the story along? Sometimes you can blend characters into one. I have done this with my husband’s two sisters. They carried out very similar roles in the book and as Iranian families are large, I had to collapse my interaction between various members to avoid confusion, and to keep the book tight. You could say I’ve added a fictional character to a true story, but memoirists use fiction techniques all the time. When it comes to approaching publishers you have to be truthful about this. You can say that your book is based on your true story for the purposes of protecting certain family members, colleagues and friends.
Choose your characters with care and make sure they earn their keep!
Backdrop and backstory
Without padding out your story with too much exposition, you can add texture and colour to your memoir by dropping in descriptive snippets of places, impressions, your likes and dislikes, thoughts and fears. Make sure you keep the narrative moving. If memoir is about reminiscing, it makes sense to slip back in time to compare, contrast, and reflect. I do a lot of philosophising in my book, and make the odd reference to the wisdom of the Persian poets, Rumi and Omar Khayyam, not to be pretentious, but to add a depth to my explanation of how ancient culture influences the thinking of the modern Iranian. It helps give the story depth and most readers like to feel they’ve learned something new.
But, it’s not all about you.
Memoir is obviously about you, but the ubiquitous “I” can become wearing for readers, especially in consecutive sentences. Unless you’re writing about your life as a hermit, avoid starting too many sentences with I. My first edit threw up hundreds of such sentences, so it was rethink, cut, rephrase. You can use the find feature on your word programme to hunt down those annoying duplicates!
Who are you writing for?
Maybe this question should be at the beginning. Memory writing can be for a legacy – something to pass down to your descendants. Many printing companies offer an inexpensive service to format your book, design a cover and print however many copies you desire. You might be writing to heal your heart – a cathartic experience, and want to keep it a secret, or maybe to honour someone’s life. Make yourself a cuppa and consider your reasons for writing a memoir.
Publish and be damned?
Not so fast. Think about the consequences. Who will be hurt, upset, angry or even threaten legal action. If you’re writing to get revenge, then stop and think again. It’s not worth it. Sensationalism sells, but I won’t sell my soul, or my story, if I have to compromise my integrity.
Since emotion is the driving force of a well-written memoir, try this short exercise. Write 200 words about a time you were overcome with emotion. What happened? When did it happen? Where were you? With whom? How did you feel?
Stay safe. Stay well.