How to Write a Memoir

Jan
27

It occurred to me that some of you might be interested in memoir writing, and since I learned something in this process, I thought I’d share it with you. I’ve been a professional writer all of my adult life, but had absolutely no idea how to write a memoir. I believed I had a story to tell, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around how to tell it.


A memoir is not an autobiography, by the way. An autobiography is a detailed description of your life from birth to the present. (A biography has a similar definition, but it’s written by someone else. An autobiography is you writing your own story.) A memoir is a slice of your life, not your entire life. The interesting slice.

I had turned over the idea of writing a book for the last couple of years. Last fall, I started actually writing the book. I still couldn’t wrap my mind around it, but I decided I’d toyed with this idea long enough and I plunged in. I wrote about half of it and sent it to my agent. She told me I wasn’t digging deep enough and I needed to break down and tell the real story.

I knew she was right, and I started rewriting the first half of the book, tossing much of what I had written previously. I got about halfway through again, still struggling, when a light bulb went off in my head. Then I rewrote the first half again, wrote the second half, and it practically fell into my computer like magic. It was a runaway train I couldn’t stop. By then, I’d moved to Sassafras Farm, of course, and realized that one of the major obstacles to finishing the story when I was still at Stringtown Rising had been that I hadn’t finished living the story.

It’s impossible to write a story you haven’t finished living.

If you’re having trouble writing your story, you might just have to be patient. You might not be done living it.

One thing that both impeded–and helped–me to write my story was the fact that I have had 26 romance novels published. I know how to write a book. A romance novel. This was a hindrance because I thought I had to set aside everything I knew about writing fiction in order to write non-fiction. Then it was immensely helpful when I finally had my light bulb moment.

Just because you’re writing a true story doesn’t mean you have to set aside everything that makes a great story. In fact, a memoir should be a great story, and if it’s not, you’ve picked the wrong slice out of your life. Go find another slice that’s more interesting.

The slice you choose should include something important that occurred over a span of time, something that shaped you, changed your life, and helped you learn a lesson. (In other words, you took a journey.) You have to decide the beginning time and the ending time for that slice. Within that time frame, you might include some backstory or flashbacks to a period of time not directly covered in the story–but those pieces need to be carefully selected to further the storyline or deepen characterization. And even within your chosen time frame, you’re not going to include every single thing that happened every single day. Events or “scenes” have to be chosen that forward the story. (Leave out the boring stuff.)

In a memoir, YOU are the main character (aka the protagonist or hero). There should be an antagonist–someone (or several someones, or even in some cases, a non-person, such as the shark as the antagonist in Jaws) who stands in the way of what you’re trying to achieve. What you’re trying to achieve in a memoir can be almost anything, usually learning something about yourself (broadly speaking). Your lesson should be universal and empowering–so that you are offering a “take-away” (something to learn) to the reader, too. Your reader should get as much out of your adventure as you did.

You need all the components of a great story, just as in fiction, only the events are true. At the beginning of the story, the hero (aka protagonist–you) should set out on a journey. (The journey doesn’t have to be a literal trek over the mountains, of course. My journey involved trying to become a real farmer.) The journey should be filled with characters–some of them present stumbling blocks, some of them are helpers, but they all contribute to the lesson learned on the journey in one way or another. In my story, the cast includes my family, the “neighborhood” of quirky characters in Stringtown–from the Ornery Angel to Skip and Frank and all the rest–not to mention the whole slew of ridiculous farm animals. You’ll need to make the reader care about your characters–and about you. It takes emotion. You’ll have to dig deep and not be afraid to reveal your personal feelings, and maybe a secret or two. Time to bare your soul.

You need three crucial elements to carry the journey–goal, motivation, and conflict. (You must have all three.) What is the goal of the journey? (What do you hope to accomplish or learn, etc?) What is the motivation? (Why do you want/need it?) What is the conflict? (Who or what stands in the way?)

You need a greatest fear–which is faced in the “black moment” of the story. (This is the darkest hour–when all appears lost, the journey is on the brink of ultimate failure.) The black moment is followed by an epiphany–the moment in which the lesson is not just learned but understood. The epiphany gives that darkest hour value, makes it make sense, and leads to the triumphant resolution. In a western, the resolution means the guy in the black hat gets shot. In a mystery, the murderer is captured. In a spy novel, the world is saved. In a romance, they live happily ever after. In a memoir, the resolution can be all kinds of things–in mine it was the move to Sassafras Farm. My greatest fear, of course, was that I would have to leave Stringtown Rising, which I feared nearly every day of my life while I lived there. In the darkest hour, I had to face it, and I had an epiphany–and a triumphant resolution. And that’s about all I’m going to tell you about my story. You’ll just have to read it! There’s a lot more to my story than I ever shared on the blog. For the book, I pulled back the curtain, bared my soul, and gave you the whole story–along with the quirky characters, the animals, and a lot of other ridiculous stuff for which you know me.

When it finally clicked with me that a memoir needed a story arc the same as any story, I was already at Sassafras Farm, so it’s just as well I didn’t figure it out till then. From that point, choosing the beginning time and ending time of my story was easy and obvious, and all the rest of the elements of a great story snapped in place. If you’ve chosen the right slice of your life about which to write a story, it will all be there naturally. You can’t force it. Remember, you can’t make anything up. It all has to be true. The slice of your life you choose to tell in a memoir should be a great adventure, and every great adventure inherently holds everything inside of it that makes a great story.

I’m hoping I’m entering an extremely boring period of my life, about which I could never write a follow-up memoir because nobody wants to hear about endless days of perfection, rainbows, and butterflies. A great story requires drama, danger, and the risk of losing it all.

But I don’t know. I could be living my next great story now. And so could you!

If you ever thought about writing a memoir, I hope you’ll find this helpful. If you don’t have a background or solid understanding of fiction technique and story structure in order to apply it to telling a true story, I recommend checking out the “how to write fiction” section of a bookstore and grabbing a few books. The more you understand about the elements of a great fictional story, the easier it will be to find the great true story in your own life. Good luck!

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Posted by Suzanne McMinn on January 27, 2012  

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29 Responses | RSS feed for comments on this post

  1. 1-27
    2:35
    am

    Oh, Suzanne, you make baring your soul sound so easy.

  2. 1-27
    7:29
    am

    Hi Suzanne!Since the time I discovered your blog, I have laughed over your farming adventures, adored the entertaining photos and poured over recipe after recipe. Your writing style has been of particular interest to me, so easy and engaging to read.

    I too have always enjoyed writing, and have recently finished writing my own memoir of sorts. Now to see where this next part of my writing journey leads! Anyway, I’m not only an interested reader – but a learning spectator, so thank you for sharing your gift.

    Can’t wait to read your book when it’s published!

    Carrie

  3. 1-27
    8:01
    am

    I am waiting for that book!

    I believe you are in a much better place now both physically and mentally.
    I am happy that you are.

  4. 1-27
    8:19
    am

    As a wannabee farmer myself who lives vicariously through your blog, I can’t wait to read your book. I have enjoyed following your adventures over the past couple of years, but I know that there must be a lot more to the story than would fit in your blog posts. Thanks for allowing all of us to live life with you!

  5. 1-27
    8:22
    am

    I can’t wait to read it also! Memoirs are my favorite books to read! One of my faves is the glass castle. If you haven’t read it I would highly recommend it. Author is Jeannette Walls and I love her writing style. Congrats on the book and look forward to it!

  6. 1-27
    8:24
    am

    I too seem to live vicariously through your blog. I have thought for several years that I would like to move on to our 70+ acre farm, and do many of the things that you do every single day. So far, I haven’t been able to take the plunge, but still live in hopes that some day I will. I can’t wait to read your book!

  7. 1-27
    8:45
    am

    I’m looking forward to reading your book. I’m curious as to what you think the repercussions of writing about the people closest to you will be when they read it? I’m sure that if you were honest in the book that not every description of every person will be flattering (at least in their opinion) and I wonder how you think those people will react? Also, I’m wondering if you got “permission” from the main characters to write about them in your story? I’m not sure I’d be gutsy enough to write about some of the people in the most interesting/dramatic slice of my life as I know the repercussions would be negative.

  8. 1-27
    8:54
    am

    I’m looking forward to the book, too.

    In the meantime,have you considered giving writing workshops at the farm? I bet there are a lot of people who want to write their story, or a family history, who would love to learn from you.

  9. 1-27
    8:59
    am

    thistlewoodmanor, when writing a true story about your life, it’s going to include writing about the people around you by default. It’s important not to make assumptions in your writing about what other people think or how they feel, but rather to express direct statements or acts. The emotion in the book (emotion being a subjective element) should come from within yourself. And bottom line, it’s important to simply tell the truth.

  10. 1-27
    9:00
    am

    Thanks Suzanne, for sharing this with us. I can’t wait for the book to come out.I could write a memoir of a certain time in my life.When I left my husband after 17 years of mental abuse, I was still young and still had some of my looks. I went wild as a buck, alot of partying and dances every week-end. Then one day the Lord Jesus found me and gave me a good shaking. He shook all the sin out of me and told me to go forth and sin no more. Soon after that I was babtized and am now living every day for the Lord.That is my short memoir, told you I could write one!! love your blog!!

  11. 1-27
    9:05
    am

    Suzanne, I’ve been writing a memoir for the past few years too.

    I’ve never written a novel, so some of what you learned/relearned, I had to learn the first time. Writing the FIRST book is I think the hardest?

    I took two memoir classes at UMASS Boston’s William Joiner Center,

    http://www.umb.edu/joinercenter/

    which was really good for me, as my story includes having PTSD and I’d never met anyone else with PTSD that I knew of.

    One piece of advice I got was from someone who said, “Include a disclaimer which says this story is told to the best of your recollection and is from your perspective only.” Others might have seen/experienced the same events differently.

    This gets you away from the truth/fact thing. That hadn’t occurred to me, I’m sure you’ve covered this, but I throw it out there in case it’s helpful to someone else. I sure hadn’t thought of it!

    You keep raising the bar… just incredible. I can’t wait til there’s a publication date!

    Blessings —

    Judi

    I do recommend the Joiner’s writing workshops, if someone is interested in social/political activism and/or dealing with trauma and associated issues. Despite their name and tagline, they are NOT simply about war and war-related writing.

  12. 1-27
    9:20
    am

    What a great post! Thank you for sharing this well-written advice with us all. It also gives readers what to look for as they read memoirs — if we don’t care for one, maybe this gives us the words to express what’s missing.

  13. 1-27
    9:30
    am

    That is such great advice. Have you considered a writers workshop at your retreat? I have been in awe of your strength and your ability to bare your soul. You have so much to give in so many ways and always willing to give it. That is true character.

  14. 1-27
    9:37
    am

    I have one question; WHEN will it be available. The recent upheaval has added another dimension to your story. I admire your fortitude and ability to overcome the odds with our usual style.

  15. 1-27
    10:38
    am

    Virginia Farmgirl, I’m not sure about doing writing workshops at the big retreat, just so much going on there and a different kind of focus, but I’m interested in doing small writing retreats and workshops in the studio at Sassafras Farm!

  16. 1-27
    11:58
    am

    I used to teach high school English. I wish you had been around to explain the writing process to my students! Great Job!

  17. 1-27
    12:07
    pm

    I’ve always loved to write and have often been encouraged to write, but so far, it’s all been short stories and essays (college) and my blog. Although I don’t know if I have a memoir to write, your post was fascinating and extremely educational; I can’t wait to read your book!

  18. 1-27
    12:20
    pm

    OH boy…I know what I want for Christmas this year ;)

  19. 1-27
    2:27
    pm

    Dear CITR Friends;
    I have shared bits and pieces with the singles class at church; with jr.high/ young couples; The question session always blows my mind. I could write a book as good as “GONE WITH THE WIND” and twice as long. (Just Kidding)
    It is so important to keep focused and remember ~

    We are pilgrims on a journey,
    We are travelers on the road,
    We are here to help each other,
    Walk the mile and bear the load.

  20. 1-27
    2:28
    pm

    Thanks for all the insights. You have a wonderful writing style, and you often have me chuckling out loud, first thing in the morning. I’ve been thinking about writing but hadn’t distinguished memoir from autobiography. Distinguishing between them makes it seem more do-able. Are there a few “how to write” books that you’d recommend? I hope your book gets published FAST.

  21. 1-27
    4:12
    pm

    What a wonderful explanation. I remember a while back when you asked readers, if you were to write a book, what sort of book should it be? You got many answers from how-to to cook book to children’s book and more. But this is the one I thought you should do. And it will only be better for the depth to which you reach. I am certain it is a story worth reading. I will look forward to it.

  22. 1-27
    4:37
    pm

    My sister and I have always said that if our life was a TV show, we would totally watch it. Maybe a memoir is better…

  23. 1-27
    4:53
    pm

    Don’t forget some of your great pictures. I enjoy them as much as what you write :wave: :woof:

  24. 1-27
    5:04
    pm

    Rah, it has been so long since I bought/read any how-to books on fiction, so I can’t make a specific recommendation, I’m sorry! I have no idea what’s out there now. I’d put the keywords in on Amazon–then check some out and read the reviews. If all you want to do is learn structure, I’d definitely suggest finding one that is basic. Some writing books can be way, way too deep and difficult–and they bore me, even when I am a professional writer! So look for a more simplistic one that will just teach structure and basic fictional elements. That is enough to take and then apply to a memoir.

  25. 1-27
    9:09
    pm

    I think you’re right that the elements of a good story are the same, regardless of genre. From the earliest storytellers around the campfire to Shakespeare, from the aunt telling family stories over the Thanksgiving dishes to the classics of literature, from fairytales to modern blockbuster movies, the basics of what makes a good story are the same.

    I love a good memoir, and you’ve set me to thinking about some of my favorites. And you’re right, they all have the elements you mentioned. Now I have a whole list that I want to go back and re-read. Maybe that will keep me busy while I wait for yours to be published.

    I’ve noticed in my own life that the parts that make the most interesting stories seldom were fun while they were happening, and the parts that are the most pleasant to live through are boring to tell about. So I wish for you many days that are enjoyable to live, but not exciting to describe. And for those times that are awful when they happen (like for instance, having your plumbing blow up just after you move to a new farm), may you always at least get a good story out of it.

  26. 1-27
    9:14
    pm

    Suzanne, I’d have much rather taken a class from you than go to Boston!

    Judi

  27. 1-27
    10:34
    pm

    I’ll get on the bandwagon for writing clinics. I’m a long way away so I’d like to think you could whip something up for the retreat this year but practicality says “Nope, not this year”. Maybe next time? Or maybe a smaller ‘retreat’ that’s all about writing? Just a thought…

    I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 handwritten (in pencil, no less) pages of a romance novel…set in the days of the settlers in the midwest (North Dakota in this case)…called Mailorder Annie after the Harry Chapin song that inspired me to write it. It’s 20+ years old now and I only revisited it once in an attempt to convert it to computer based text. To my surprise I ended up just retyping and not rewriting. I’d love to have a class that would encourage me enough to actually type it ALL up and submit it to somebody…..

  28. 1-29
    6:45
    pm

    Do writing clinics! That would be so amazing. I would come. I had a writing panic attack a couple of months ago when I realized that I totally massacred the time line of my “almost done” novel. Now I am rewriting it entirely… in chronological order this time. :hole: I need a writing workshop/clinic. Sigh.

    I really loved this post. I wish I had been able to comment sooner but they took away internet at work. I still read you every morning on my phone :D but it makes commenting a lot harder. It’s an amazing post. I can’t wait to read your book when it comes out. Now I want to write a memoir but I think I am too young.

  29. 1-31
    12:54
    pm

    Great tips, thanks. I’ve been working on a memoir and it sort of “stopped” after about 5 chapters. I think this info. will help me get unstuck and move it forward once I’m able to return to the project. There is a lot of good stuff here that helps me understand how I need to structure and develop the story. This is just what I needed.

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