Writing memoir: what's your focus?

This is a re-post from my old website - where Alan (my partner) and I posted writing tips and info about our writing classes. I've had a few requests to re-post this. So here it is: Al's take on writing memoir. (His memoir, Before You Met Me: A Memoir Of One Man's Troubled Search For Love was published in 2008. And yep, I am the last chapter.)

At first glance, writing memoir might appear to be easier than writing fiction. After all, it’s your life and you know the story, yes? It’s not as if you have to make anything up. Not like fiction writers who have to think the whole lot up: plot, characters, everything.

But writing about your own life is rarely simple and never easy. Some writers (Sarah being one of them) suggest that memoir is harder to do well than fiction.

Before we go on, it’s probably useful to define what a memoir is and isn’t. There is a difference between memoir and autobiography. An autobiography is the story of a life, usually written by someone famous or worthy at an advanced age, when they have the time or motivation to look back and reflect on their achievements. Its structure is built around the stages of a life – youth, adulthood, middle age, old age. It usually starts at birth (with some reflection on family background) and proceeds chronologically until the time of writing.

A memoir is both less and more. It is usually about one period or one aspect of the writer’s life. But the writer’s options in terms of how they structure the story are limited only by their imagination. A memoir can use all the tools of fiction and be just as inventive.  

Some recent examples of memoir are Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, which explores her desire, after the breakdown of her marriage, to find a way to live a life balancing the spiritual and the material. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt focuses on his impoverished childhood in rural Ireland. My Place, the Australian classic by Sally Morgan, relates her quest to unravel and understand her Aboriginal heritage and identity. And Touching The Void is mountaineer Joe Simpson’s famous account of being given up for dead while climbing in the Andes and ultimately crawling to safety with a badly broken leg.  These memoirs all have a clear focus, either in the time period covered, and/or in the writer’s quest for understanding.

In my opinion, finding the focus of your story and keeping to it is the key to a successful memoir. Your life gives you far more material than you could possibly include, so how do you decide what parts to include and which to leave out? Knowing, or finding out, what to leave out is especially important

Even if you know that you want to write about a specific period of your life (living in France for two years, for example, or the mysterious death of your father when you were young), I’d suggest you will still need to think deeply about how to focus your story.

THE QUESTION

A powerful way to focus your story is to consider if there is a question you are trying to answer.

Often a writer only figures out this question once she starts writing and feels her way into the story. The question can change as she writes – and she may realise there is more than one question she is trying to answer.

For instance, when I started the process of writing my book Before You Met Me, the question eating away at me was: How is that I never had children? (At the time I was forty-three and was single – yet again.) The more I thought about this, however, and the more I wrote into my story, it became obvious that the main reason I hadn’t had children was because my relationships were always in turmoil. And I realised that the questions should be: How come I couldn’t hold a relationship together? And what do I have to change in my life to do so?

Using our earlier examples, the question driving Eat Pray Love might be, ‘How can I live a spiritual life and enjoy earthly pleasures as well?

Angela’s Ashes: ‘How did I survive my childhood and how has it formed me?’

My Place: ‘Who am I?

Touching The Void: ‘What happened? How did I survive? What did it teach me?

If you don’t have a burning question, (and many memoirists don’t when they begin) I’d suggest that you simply start writing and trust that in time the question will emerge (with a little...interrogation perhaps).

FREEWRITING

Sarah and I believe that the most effective (and easiest) way to start writing and find your question is by freewriting. Freewriting turns off your conscious mind and allows the writing to flow from your unconscious. The rules are simple: take the first thought and follow it wherever it leads you; don’t stop writing; try to ignore your inner critic and keep going however ‘bad’ the writing may feel. The more you practice freewriting, the more natural it feels.

It’s like meditation. You learn to trust the (huge) part of you that operates beneath the conscious mind. You realise that you have inside you almost unlimited creativity. Freewriting is also the best way to uncover the long-forgotten memories and stories that help build a memoir. It’s extraordinary how much detail we can remember once we start writing.

Two great freewriting standbys are to start with the words ‘I remember…’ or ‘The story I want to tell is…’ and write without stopping, and without planning. Follow the first thought that comes and see where the words lead you. Writing into the unknown like this can be scary, but the more you trust this process, the more you will relax and trust yourself. The famous American writer E.L. Doctorow once said, ‘Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can’t see the road ahead of you, but if you trust your headlights, they will eventually lead you to your destination.’ The same applies to memoir. You are telling a story. It might be a true story, but discovering the best way to tell it, like fiction, is a journey into the unknown. 

And while this freewriting process often reveals to fiction writers what they didn’t know (about themselves and about life), memoir writers often find that the process leads them to trust what they did know all along.

As you write, it may be useful to brainstorm the possible questions that your memoir is trying to answer. Write the questions on cards and stick them above your desk. Once you are clear on one or two questions, consider which events in your life speak to that question. If an event doesn’t help answer (or help set up) that question, the writing about that event may need to go. Even if it’s beautifully written, even if it was important to you, even if it actually happened. These cards staring back at you when you write also act as a kind of compass to keep you on track when you’re unsure where to go next.

An engaging memoir uses all the techniques of fiction: characters (including yourself), action (the major interactions and events in your story are almost always best told in real time action), plot, dialogue, revelations, reflection, growth. You are telling a story and there is no reason why it can’t be as exciting a narrative as the best fiction. I’ll write more in coming months about these considerations as they relate to memoir. For instance, on the question of character, I often see, in the first draft of a memoir, a kind of black hole where the protagonist (you!) should be. Memoirists often forget to create themselves as a character in early drafts. It’s quite a leap to think of yourself as a character in a story, but it’s a necessary leap.

In coming articles, I’ll also write about some of the ethical and moral questions that inevitably arise when writing about other people. (‘Is it true? Can I invent dialogue? What do I have the right to include?) In brief, my advice is to write the first draft for yourself, not worrying about what Uncle Kevin will think of what you’ve said about his drinking. You may well choose to edit it later, but I think that censoring your writing deprives your first draft of a necessary freedom and looseness.

FINALLY

Finally – well, almost - you’ll (hopefully) be unsurprised to hear that the best way to learn how to write memoir is to read, read, read. It is, simply, impossible to be a good writer without being a constant reader. Read memoirs especially (and especially in your subject area) but allow writers in other genres to open your mind to the possibilities in your own writing. Consider how other writers have focused their writing. (Or not!) Think about why a book works - or doesn’t. It is as instructive to analyse why a book doesn’t seem to really hit the mark as it is to admire why one does. Books almost always make an impact in the end because they make you feel something. Try to think into this feeling. What exactly are you feeling and – importantly - why? How did the writer achieve the effects that have an effect on you? What do you want your readers to feel and how can you achieve this? Make yourselfa good reader. Every writer hopes for good readers and being a good reader is the start of being a good writer.

Lastly, remember that you have a unique voice and therefore a unique story. Trusting this is essential to finishing what you have started.