As readers, we all have the experience of trying to find our bearings as we begin a story. To get “inside” the story that’s beginning, we readers are curious about who the main characters are, and we’re eager to learn about them—to learn why we are being told this story about these people.
Early in a story, we’re getting grounded in where we are—literally—on the planet, in the world, and in the geography of place. We need to know the time frame for the story, too. That’s the who, where, and when of the story. These details need to be on the first page, ideally in the first few lines.
From the first sentence, readers are scanning for why the story is being told. If you’re writing memoir, the reader needs to understand not only the why, but where the narrator is in relation to the story—is the narrator telling from the point of view as a child or are we hearing from the “now” narrator who will weave us through time? Or both?
The best way to orient your reader is to start with a scene: a scene is located at a particular time and place—let’s say 1972 in New York City. As soon as we know this information, we begin to orient ourselves as readers into that time and place by bringing in our own frame of reference for that time. Our minds swiftly scan to create order and logic as we read. Images of NYC during the seventies from the news or TV might come to mind: piles of garbage, Mayor Lindsey, the twin towers arising into the landscape, hippies, long hair, big cars, and rebellion. Marches to end the war in Viet Nam, protests about women’s rights and gay rights. A few images or references quickly create context for the story.
More about scene: characters are engaged with each other, and are motivated in some way. You might or might not have dialogue, but one line of dialogue can go a long way to create character and context.
You could say, “the woman was flirtatious and brassy,” or you can have her talk and act. “’Hey buddy, how about it,’” she said as she swiveled her hips in an impossibly red satin dress.” We call this “showing” rather than “telling.”
In memoir we DO need to have telling—which includes reflection, thinking, and reacting—but some writers do way too much telling and stay in the head of the narrator too much. This is a challenge, of course, for memoirists, because we already know where the scene is—it’s alive in our head! We were there, we are not making up the stories we’re writing, but all the same we need to translate that inner movie into words so the rest of the world can join us in that world.
Don’t Manipulate the Reader
Beginning writers often tease the reader, saying things like “The man came to the door”—not telling us who the man was when it was the narrator’s father. Or the writer withholds what the person looks like, the name, or details that identify because they think if we don’t know, we’ll be curious and keep reading. Teasing and vague references have the opposite effect: they make us stop reading. If you are the narrator, you SEE the person at the door, you know what he looks like, and you know it’s your father, for instance. Withholding this information from the reader only makes us mad! Since you see him and know him, deliver that information so we stay engaged with you in the story. Don’t try to trick the reader.
Check your References
Because your story is living in your head, you know who everyone is—you know that “he” refers to your father, not your uncle or your brother; when you use pronouns as referents, it refers to the person mentioned immediately before. Check to see that your pronouns are correct, and don’t sprinkle too many together. The reader gets lost when there are several pronouns in a string.
Vague references like “We went there like we always did” needs to refer to a place you mentioned in the previous sentence or two. Where is “there?” Be specific. And what do you mean by “like we always did.” If this is at the beginning of your story, the reader won’t know what it means. Who does “we” refer to? Tell us what you mean by “always”—every day, every month, every year?
Moving through time
Memoir writers are time travelers. We zoom around freely in our memories, but on the page, we have to manage the shifting images of memory and time. Most beginning writers need to highly structure their shifts in time. Experienced writers can flow from one time frame to the next, so you may think you’re modeling your writing after them, but writers who have not worked with juggling different time frames get lost or confuse the reader.
Decide the time frame and the tense of your piece. You might be writing from the now narrator, for instance, in the present, and moving into the past in the past tense? That’s one way to structure your time movements and keep them straight. You can use tenses in a variety of ways, but be sure to keep track of when you are in the past and when you have returned to the present. Note when you are in 1973, for example, and when you speaking from now.
Create what we call a “line break”—a double double spaces which can be peppered with asterisks for clarity, to show that we have shifted from one time frame to another.
Do this when you shift from the present into the past, and do it again when you return to the present. Notice in this article, each time I shift to another major topic, I use two double spaces to indicate a new section.
Keeping these tips in mind will help you get oriented in your book from the beginning, and when you have built a strong foundation, it’s easier to keep going.
Writing a memoir means exploring who we are and where we came from, entering the unknown on our journey and discovering ourselves. We strike out for the gold of truth and honesty, as we explore the spiritual journey that leads us away from known territory deeper into who we are. We use the tools of memory, creativity, and writing.
To find the road and have a focus I use the technique called “turning points.” These are the most important moments of your life, when nothing remained the same after the event. It might be meeting a new person, moving away from your home town, encountering danger, an accident, an illness, or receiving an award or a scholarship, losing a loved one to death, a natural disaster, a birth. Falling in love.
Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina, says to write “Where the fear is, where the heat is.” That invited us to delve into the heart of our stories, of the high and low points in our lives. Emotion and memory guide us into our journey toward truth and honesty. Judith Barrington says that the memoirist, “Whispers into the ear of the reader.” When we read a memoir, we feel that we are being invited into the secret heart of a person, a family, a time and a place.
When I was little, my great grandmother and my great aunts were busy. They’d wash and hanging clothes on the line to dry in the sun, or cooking—my great grandmother still used a wood cook stove—even in the summer! They’d can the bounty from the garden, or were busy with their needlework. They belonged to quilting bees, and would sit around the quilting frame, chattering and stitching by hand. They cut out designs and patterns using pieces of old clothes, creating ripples of colors as the separate patches came together in a design. As we gather our turning point stories from our memories, we write vignettes in any order. Later they will be quilted together into a work of art.
Another guide on the journey is creating a timeline. After you list your turning point stories, plot them on a timeline that you create out of an 18×24 inch piece of paper. Your memoir will be composed of a couple of major themes from your life but you will no doubt want to write more stories than will end up in your memoir. Look at how your turning points cluster on the timeline –you might find new insights into your life as more memories surface. You can Xerox photos that go with the various turning points, and create a vision board, where you weave the colors and the images.
The more you write, the more you develop your turning points and the sensual details of your life, the more you will remember. And you will weave magic as you write your memoir.
The stuff of memories will be explored today on the Free National Association of Memoir Writers Free Roundtable with Sharon Lippincott, author and advisory board member. Sign up to get the audio!
When you first decide to write, you’re excited—eager to explore the memories and stories that are part of you. Memories shape who you are and where you hailed from. In a memoir, you weave the legacy about your life and times. You know your story—but perhaps the whispers of the ever present inner critic voice interfere with your story flow—what will people think; you should be ashamed; you will embarrass the family. Don’t air the dirty laundry; you know only part of the truth, so be quiet. Your mother will roll over in her grave if she found out you wrote that.
The inner critic can be part of the “outer critics” the family voices that stop you from writing. Perhaps you feel you need to be loyal, to not make anyone uncomfortable. Some memoir writers are told openly by family members not to write a memoir.
These voices are too familiar to memoir writers, making you want to throw down the pen or close the computer, and turn on the TV. You don’t want to lose your family, and you don’t want make them angry or cause a war between cousins. Writing a memoir is an act of courage, even defiance against powerful family dynamics that urge you to keep silent, and to keep the secrets.
When you write a memoir, you reclaim your own voice, your stake a claim to your version of the story. Every family has multiple story lines. There’s the “official” version, controlled by the most powerful people in the family, usually the parents or those who have the most to lose. The “lesser” points of view are most often held by the children or those not in power.
Who decides what version of a story to believe? Who is not listened to? The answers to these questions will be decided by who’s in power. But you have a point of view, you have a story that needs to be told. You have to write past the old voices and the inner critic.
Many families have a “scapegoat,” or a clown—often the most sensitive person who has a unique, even unpopular view of the family stories. Those with the most power may try to suppress these alternative points of view. If you are in that role, it’s your job to tell your story as you see it.
You need to create a safe, sacred space to keep writing. Write your story in a protected bubble to help you listen to your own voice. Write frequently, write often. The force of your voice and your writing energy burns through the blocks from the past
- If the critic voice stops you, take dictation of what it’s saying. Get the voices out of your head and onto the page where you can be more objective. Keep asking, “What else to I want to say that’s important?”
- Think about where you learned the critic voices. Write down this information. Freewrite—meaning writing quickly without stopping– your memories of power and powerlessness in your life.
- Visualize scenarios where you feel powerful and in charge of your voice. Use strong verbs. Don’t write in the conditional “would” or “might.” Describe your world and your memories vigorously with bright descriptions, sensual details.
- Begin with an image. Choose a photograph and write about it. Describe the person in the photo, and what was happening in the photo. Write why you chose the photo. What is it telling you?
- If the critic voice says: “I don’t know how to write; my family will hate me; how do I know I am writing the truth?” keep freewriting past this voice. If you were silenced when you were growing up, you will need to work through it now.
- DO NOT hit the delete button when you feel critical of your writing. DO protect your writing. Treat your work like a young seedling that needs protection.
- Write in cafés, where the sound of life may drown out the critic voices.
- Remember: if you’ve been abused, neglected, forgotten, or silenced, you likely learned not to value your own point of view. Writing your story can change that. Keep “telling it like it is.”
- Write for five minutes. Stretch your ability to keep writing—work up to fifteen minutes at a time—doing a freewrite. When you feel like stopping, write for five minutes more. You might be tempted to stop as you get close to core emotions.
- Make a list of the 10 reasons it’s important for you to write your memoir.
- List 12 things you will do during the Year of the Memoir to get it done.
At the NAMW Telesummit Friday starting at 10 AM PDT, I get to talk with several fantastic authors and teachers. Their books have shaped my thinking toward more creative choices, and pushed me toward using language to carve out even deeper truths. The experts I get to hang out with are Jennifer Lauck, author of Blackbird and three other amazing and deep memoirs, including her last book Found. Dinty W. Moore’s collection of memoir essays Between Panic and Desire show us how we can weave small pieces into a memoir, while Robin Hemley’s Nola is another kind of weaving that examines the nature of memory and the sources of “truth” –whatever that is. The topic of the Telesummit is Truth or Lie: On the Cusp of Memoir and Fiction, and also features a panel of young memoirists who couldn’t wait for people to die before they wrote about their lives! And the best news: it’s FREE to everyone. Just sign up at the link below.
Robin’s memoir asks: whose version of “truth” is “real.” Can we trust memory, or do we create our story based on emotional need or unconscious beliefs?
Quotes from Nola:
How can one be objective about one’s family? How can one resist the urge to edit, to become the family spin doctor?
…There is no real past, it’s all a daydream is seems, or an endless series of clues and discoveries…
…everyone’s life is a kind of detective story, every clue of our forebears’ lives, every decision, missed opportunity…are part of the solution to our own existence.
To read more about the Telesummit, go to the National Association of Memoir Writers to sign up. You will receive a link to the downloadable audio after the conference is over.
Robin will talk about “The Trouble with the Truth,” which is the troubling and challenging issue for all memoir and nonfiction writers. His introduction to the teleconference:
Any time we set down to write the truth of our lives we have to face the fact that there is no single truth to our lives. To make matters more complex we’re different people at different times in our lives and we show different faces to different people. The portrayal of an “authentic” self is something most memoir writers strive for, but there are always details we omit or exaggerate or forget, or hidden agendas even we aren’t aware of as we’re writing. While we don’t want to lie, we also have to understand that what we aspire to write is closer to art than a court room transcript. It’s not all about content. There are aesthetic concerns as well. Above all, you have to remember that once an event has passed, it’s gone forever and words can’t recreate the event. They can only create a semblance of the event.
We’re so lucky to be able to meet with people you normally have to pay hundreds of dollars to see, so join us for Free! See you there!
Writing a memoir means digging deep into your soul—doesn’t it? Writing is a solitary act, right? Yes to all that. I’m the first one to tell my students to keep their work private for a while, though maybe you’ve decided to show it to your family.
Good luck with that, but it’s just the beginning of how you’ll be putting yourself and your writing out into the world. A memoir is different from journaling—you’re writing a story, not just writing from an internal place where you don’t have to create a world that makes sense.
The Basic Three Things Needed for a Good Memoir
You have to write so the reader understands you; as you get to the later stages of writing your memoir, you need to see it objectively, targeting your audience and your readers—who will someday become fans.
Your writing creates ripples in the world once you move out from your private writing space. As you probably know by now, your memoir needs to deliver
- New information to the reader—knowledge that alters the reader’s view of life.
- A new experience—which means feelings, insights, and ahas.
- These experiences need to be in story form—shaped for the reader—each chapter with a reason to be there, a point or a theme to be understood.
Beyond Writing—Finding Success with Marketing, Social Media, and Publicity
Penny Sansevieri, guest speaker for the National Association of Memoir Writers upcoming Telesummit says, “Memoir writing requires more than writing skills. To become a successful author, you need to understand how the media works and what you need to do yourself—no matter who your publisher is.”
This means thinking outside of your writing cubicle—and seeing yourself objectively, and learning how to present yourself and your work so others can benefit from what you have to say.
There are so many ways now to share your nuggets of wisdom—the internet is our best friend when it comes to getting the word out. Now social media helps us shape our message in sound bites or the well-known “elevator speech” that you learn to give at conferences to get the attention of agents and publishers.
In one sentence you say what your book is about. For instance, for Don’t Call Me Mother, I would say, “I was the last of three generations of mothers who abandoned their daughters. It’s a story of how I broke that pattern and found forgiveness for my mother.”
I had variations on that speech but it summed up the essence of the book. Another student is writing about how giving up her daughter for adoption changed her life-what she did to forgive herself and make amends with her daughter.
You have to think: what am I offering the reader that can help them in their lives? What is the overall theme and message of my book? This is the question you have to answer for each chapter as well.
If you’re like most writers, thinking about publicity and marketing is the last thing on your mind while you’re writing, but along the way you do need to start learning, taking workshops, reading about how to think about ways to sell yourself.
I’m looking forward to hearing Penny speak more about these skills at the NAMW Telesummit October 21—Truth or Lie: On the Cusp of Memoir and Fiction. Sign up here.
Join me there for a great day. It’s Free for all.