Writing a Memoir: Balancing Craft and Vulnerability on Your Journey to “The End”



I’ve often said jokingly to my students, “Writing a memoir is like taking your clothes off in public.” True, but it doesn’t go far enough. It’s like taking your clothes off and reading your journal in public. You’re vulnerable when you write as you think of others reading your work, and you feel overwhelmed—there are so many stories to choose from! Where to start? Which to choose?

There’s an endless chatter that many beginning writers find hard to deal with. You can’t just silence the voices in your head—the questions posed are important. They’re the questions you need to answer. They go like this: “Today, which story can I write? It’s not in order of my outline? Should I write a story, any story I can manage, or wait until my brain clears? Maybe I need to work on my outline some more.” Etc. Etc.

For most people, their memoir is their first book. So you are doing two things at once: you’re taking off your clothes, AND you’re learning how to write a book. Yikes! Don’t despair. Lots of people do it, but you need to try to keep balancing your feelings, your emotional temperature, and your energy to learn the craft of writing, and also how a book is written. It’s a long slow boat to the end of the story, and you also need patience. Oh, and a sense of humor helps too!
Memoir is still a popular subject—for those who want to explore their lives through story, and for readers. There seems to be a hunger to learn from our fellow humans how to manage life, how to live it better, how to create something worthwhile out of life experiences both for the writer and the reader.

If you are a writer, here are some tips that can help you balance your skills

• Sketch out the outline—this becomes a map for you to follow.
• Decide what your themes are for your book—knowing your themes helps you to focus. A memoir is a piece of your life, not your whole life.
• Learn about scenes—a scene happens in a certain place and time.
• More specifically: be aware that writing a scene brings you into the world you are painting on the page—you are creating a whole world for your reader.
• Check to see if you have used sensual detail in your scenes—touch, sound, description, character development, dialogue (not in all scenes), smell, textures—so important to create that world.
• List the important scenes in your life—but preferably the important scenes that connect with the themes in your book—this helps you to focus on starting to weave your memoir.
• Find out how to connect scenes with reflection—you weave narration and reflection with your scenes.
• Learn what the narrator does to help keep your book flowing—your narrator guides the reader through the book, through thoughts and reflections, and offers a message or takeaway for the reader.

Questions surrounding vulnerability that arise for most memoir writers:

• Do I have a right to tell others’ stories? (Yes—if it’s your story that’s the focus, and if you’re fair.)
• How do I decide which stories are the most important? (See below.)
• Dare I share/tell the intimate or secret parts of my life? What might happen? (This is the challenge of memoir, this is what we’re doing. Be brave—write your first draft.)
• My stories are emotionally hard to get into. Should I stop writing? (Don’t stop! Write for a short time, then take a break.)
• What about family—these stories will upset them. (Your memoir is your story. Write a first draft that you don’t show to anyone.)
• Some of my stories are very dark. Will I get depressed and stuck if I write them? (Write a dark story for only 10-15 minutes. Balance with a lighter story, or leave and do something fun.)
• I’m stuck. What should I do? (See below.)
• I’m writing mostly for healing, so can I just copy parts of my journal and call it a memoir? (Your memoir is made up of scenes and reflection—both. Don’t just copy your journal.)
• Do I need scenes when my focus is spiritual or reflective? (You need scenes to bring the reader into your world, the world of body and mind. The reader needs to feel your experience.)
• Can I write in third person to protect myself, or use a pseudonym? (No. Write your first draft in your voice using real names. Don’t share it. Just get through it. Then decide what to do.)
Here are some more important things to keep in mind when integrating craft and emotions:

1. You’re writing your story, in a first draft, mostly for you—but that doesn’t mean that you should throw out craft to do it. In fact you’ll be very frustrated if you don’t learn about scene writing, because in the end you’ll have a whole lot of pages that will be hard to follow and messy. You’ll have to figure out where and when to use scenes anyway, if you want to publish your memoir eventually—and most memoir writers want to publish.
2. You can still write your first draft as mostly a healing draft, but I have learned through working with memoir writers for over 15 years that if you write in scene, your work will be more powerful and more healing. Studies have backed this up too: story—with scene, narration, and sensual details—is a powerful transformational agent.
3. Find your important moments of meaning—your True North of your memoir—by listing turning points or moments that are important to you. Make a list, keep it up for a while, and then you’ll have the spine of your memoir. Choose to write your scene from this list, and you can write in any order. Making an outline is helpful too though, because at some point, you’ll want to put those scenes in some kind of order.
4. When in doubt about what to write, select a scene, a significant scene, and write it. The antidote to the left organizing brain is to drop into YOU, and find a scene you feel connected to and write it. That scene, that moment.
5. We need to balance the organizing we need to do to write a book by making space to find ourselves, our voice, and our reason for writing our story. It helps to close your eyes and visualize where you are, when, who’s there with you in the scene, the smells, texture, sights of that moment. Write it without thinking of anything else. Stay present with it.
6. Your memoir is YOUR story, how you experienced the world—with your memories and your thoughts about the moments you capture. You will be showing AND telling in your memoir, creating a world where you invite the reader to join you.


Image courtesy of renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Memoir Writing: Skills and Tools for your Craft


I was thinking about the word “craft.” A craft is a boat, a craft sails down roiling waters, a craft keeps us dry and safe–we hope! How is a memoir like a boat–does our craft keep us dry and safe? Does it protect us in any way? As I prepare to give my webinar for Writer’s Digest March 8–on International Women’s Day, I began to muse on these questions.

Craft is also a verb–to craft something is to create it. We craft our memoir, and we draw upon skills for the craft of memoir writing. It all comes full circle, and such is the magic of words.

Here is a list of some of the skills you need when you write-craft- your memoir–I’m going to talk about all of them during the 90 minute webinar:

  • How to create a hook and theme—in other words: how to make your story stand out from other memoirs that editors and agents review.
  • Ways to think about truth and memory, family, and legal issues that block your writing; how to find your theme and focus your story for your audience.
  • Create a timeline, write vignettes, and choose the most important part of your story—the turning points.
  • The reasons why you need scenes and a narrative arc.
  • Why you need to draw upon fictional techniques, such as sensual details, point of view, scenic structure, and vivid descriptions to craft a great story.
  • How to research the parts of your story that you’re not sure about.

I like talking about craft, and I urge my students not to feel overwhelmed by what they need to learn, to put their memoir boat out in the waters and build it strong so it can carry the story they are telling through the rapids and the dark places, and be able to bring in the light and the insight to their story. Most memoir writers are sorting something out as they write, they’re knitting together threads of the past, they’re looking in closets for skeletons, they’re confronting family myths. It’s a lot to juggle, and so worthwhile.

Most memoirists get stuck on some aspect of the memoir—like truth—is my truth right? Will the family get angry at me? Will my words cause a rift in the family?

Or plot—how can I organize so many memories, what should I write about first? How do I make transitions between time frames?

Some memoirists think they can copy their journal and have a memoir. A memoir is a crafted story made up like a quilt from many areas of your life, with a guiding narrator to help the reader make sense of it. Some post-modernists don’t care about making sense, but most readers want to understand what your story is about, they want to apply it to their own lives.

To find out more about the webinar, go to Writers Digest.

I’m also doing the Roundtable Discussion at National Association of Memoir Writers with Brooke Warner on March 8–4 PM PST. We’re going to talk about techniques to help you commit to writing your memoir, focus on your story, and get your memoir done!