Three Tips on How to Bring Your Memoir Together

Tuesday, November 12, 2019
Since I started working on a memoir, it seems like everywhere I turn is another memoir being pimped . . . I mean promoted . . . or another post on how to make your memoir sing. I’ll admit, I’m a more avid reader of the how-to pieces than I am of the actual memoirs. What can I say? Maybe I’m ridiculously picky or memoir is just hard to do well.

Here are three tips on how to bring your own memoir together.

Pick a narrative line. One. Not three. Because memoir is memoir and not autobiography, you need to decide which story you are telling. Is this your rise from abused child and then wife to woman standing on her own two feet? Or perhaps you are telling how you recovered from the injuries you received at the hands of a butcher of a surgeon. Once you decide which story you are telling, you have chosen a path. Don’t try to jump to another one mid-memoir. In autobiography, you get to tell every story. In memoir, you get to tell one.

Think plot. In the blog post “How to Write Your Memoir Like a Novel,” Joe Bunting talks about how he rewrote his memoir manuscript with the three act structure in mind. He looked for rising tension. He cut backstory. As he rewrote, he built scenes looking for ways to increase suspense. As a result, he pulled together a memoir that readers say is a page turner just like a well-written novel.

Remember, memoir is not genealogy. Because a memoir is your story, it is also your family’s story. But it is also important to note that it is not a family history. If you write it that way, the only people who want to read it will be your family. Maybe. To create something that will appeal to a larger body of readers, your focus has to go beyond your family story to the larger story. You are writing about more than the Benedicts. You are writing about how losing the Benedict family business impacted your life.

It all seems intimidating, doesn’t it? I suspect that if you try to keep all of this in mind as you write your rough draft you will never get your story down. The key to success can be found in Bunting’s approach. Rough your memoir, then, during the rewrite process, hone it into a well-crafted piece of literature.

The key to great writing, after all, is the rewrite process.


To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards' writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins November 18th, 2019.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--I imagine that when your memoir is finished, it will be compelling and well crafted. Perhaps some graphic novel bits thrown in? (A Jodi Picoult novel had parts of a graphic novel as part of it, and it worked really well.) Perhaps some threads that sound like a nonfiction book focused on a science topic? Whether you chose to throw in some hybrid bits or whether it's just a straight memoir, I will stand in line to buy it. (Memoir is my favorite genre to read.)

Your advice is great, by the way. Too often memoirs go off the rails and become one big, hot mess.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Sue ~ This is excellent advice. I was just talking to my memoir group about theme, and I've noticed that memoirs with a strong theme about one thing are the only ones the Big 5 publishers pick up. My memoir takes place in only a three-year timeline and is about one relationship, but I have three strong important themes that tie together. I've resolved to go with a small press when I'm finished because it's the way I want to tell the story. So it's not that we have to pick only one theme, but we do need to manage our publishing expectations if we don't.

But then again, if you read Mary Karr's memoirs, she jumps around everywhere, and she's the "Queen of Memoir." But I do prefer memoirs that are written about one thing, and I also prefer memoir written in scenes. I don't like it when they read like fiction though. To me, that's a waste of the nonfiction form, and probably not that truthful. I kind of went off the rails a bit with dialogue during NaNo, and the scene is riveting, but I know it's not that accurate. I prefer a creative nonfiction style with various devices to move the story. It keeps my mind interested.

I also think that it's important to sprinkle in backstory and family history, but "sprinkle it in" to provide context and try not to veer off entirely. However, when you're in the first draft stage, you should throw in everything you can because memoir is about excavating the truth. It's a long process and most of the time the only way to find those truths is to write it all out.

I'm excited you're working on your memoir! If you ever want to trade memoir feedback let me know. :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Love the idea of working in graphic novel pieces!

I will definitely have to read Karr's work. Mine won't have a tight timeline. We are talking something like 50+ years with my story and Dad's. I don't think it has to read like fiction to draw on some of the forms but I definitely prefer creative nonfiction.

I think a lot of what I've read has been too unfocused. Not that you can't have a lengthy timeline. Or three themes. But you have to know how to do it or it feels jumbled. Something has to tie it all together.

I will definitely be asking you for a reading list. I want to read work produced by some of the smaller presses but what I see listen is often only from the Big Five.

I would definitely love to trade feedback. I'll focus on this project next!

Renee Roberson said...

This is a fascinating post. I love your suggestion on choosing a three-act format and sticking with it. I don't really have memoir in mind for myself, but this is great advice if I ever attempt it. Right now I first have to learn how to achieve creative nonfiction success in short form! Also, the memoir is not genealogy advice is spot on. No one but you has any interest in reading your chronological life story--and so many writers starting out fail to realize that. Like you said, there has to be a narrative or strong hook in order to catch the attention of those big publishers.

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