7 Questions on Memoir

Where should I start?

You could start at the beginning, if you can find it. You could also take a more fool-proof approach and list your significant moments—forks in the road, times of change, the great highs and terrible lows—and start with any of these. Just write the scene. And then write another, and another. You can worry about structure to your life’s story when you get enough pieces in front you.

What should I say?

Say the important things. Leave out the boring bits. Include only enough detail to make your reader understand who you are, where you are, and what’s going on in the scene. And write it in a way that makes him care. Focus on the action: what happened? Tell that, and any repercussions, including how you, The Main Character, felt about it. Call upon your five senses and filter these things in to dress the scene to ignite your reader’s sensibilities.

How do I get started?

Begin to study your subject—you, your environment, family, time in history, culture, key events—and make notes.  Everything that touches this story is worthy of your interest. A story is a shaped thing—shaped from an exquisite culling from your notes.  Powerful stories don’t usually emerge whole, like some fish pulled from a stream.  They are built from pieces.

What’s makes a good memoir?

We readers tend to regard something as “good” when it touches us, or teaches us, or confirms for us what it means to be human. A good memoir is complicated, beautiful, tragic, and messy just like life. A good memoir makes sense of a life and leaves us with something that lingers.

How do I know my story will be interesting to someone else?

If it’s interesting to you, that’s good enough. Your own interest (and hard work) is what will make the story catch fire.

How do I find my structure?

Through your data gathering, note taking, and sketches of scenes (no pressure, just get it down), you will have some pieces that you know you want to tell. Spread them out before you and contemplate the shape of your story. Stories start, build, peak, and fall.  The story of your life works the same. The beginning is critical, so choose it carefully—something riveting and that makes a reader want to know more—and then go from there. If a scene doesn’t move the narrative forward, cut it and keep going.

What do I do about my family?

I believe that there are some things you shouldn’t tell.  After that, just stick to the facts and be as clear and straight as you can manage. Let the facts speak, while you concentrate on the art. Will your family like it? How should I know? But I wouldn’t bet on it. Ernest Hemingway’s family implored him not to send them anything else until he was ready to write something good. Susan Minot’s family took such issue with her version of things, several wrote their own. It’s your story. Tell it as you see it. Be nice. Be fair. Be straight. And you’ll sleep well.


Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photos by cybertoad.

Do You Need to Know the Ending?

This is a “yes, but” situation.

Yes: If you don’t know where you’re going, how can you chart a course to get there?

A whole lot can happen in the middle, some of which might take you by surprise and affect the ending, but when you pull out your star charts, and man the ship’s wheel all night, closing the distance between you and your destination is the point. No destination, and you might just sail around in circles.

Think through your story, to know where it begins and how it will proceed to a satisfying and believable conclusion.

If you discover that the story doesn’t hold up, or a character isn’t working, or that the ending is all wrong, you will have to step back, throw out what isn’t working, and plan your story anew.

This sense of change, of flux, of being available to your talents and instincts even when they require that you set a new  course, has sometimes been described as the story writing itself.

So yes, you absolutely need to know your ending and aim for it if you expect to get there . . .

But: a secure writer, trusting in his process, will move with his story, instead of against it.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: ship’s wheel by Stephen Glenn; stars by howardedin.com

The Measure of a Man

I always read the obituaries—especially those that start on the front page. It’s the one place that I can absorb, in a single smooth gulp, the entire arc of a person’s life as seen from the perspective of a dispassionate observer.

There, in columnar inches, I trace where he began, and where it took him. His education. His loves, his losses, his lucky breaks. A dry wit noted, perhaps. A penchant for bulldogs. I read about his friends, his habits and quirks, his desires, and the surprises—the moments of happenstance or folly—that seemed to have twisted his fate into wholly unanticipated directions.

Once again, I see that here we are, now we’re gone, and the middle years are never as we might have imagined at the start.

And then I put the newspaper down and go back to work.

Can we writers pen as clean a character study? Do we know the intimate details of a figure we have created, the fury and fragility of who he or she is, and why?

If we have done our job well, each time our character appears, some aspect of him deepens.  If we can be clear about these complexities and possess, as well, a firm grasp of the arc of his life, then we’re probably well on our way to penning an authentic and memorable creation.

Photo credit: Claude Jean