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.