Writing memoir is like drawing a self portrait while looking in the mirror. Sort of. Don’t be surprised if your picture turns out backwards. Which may not be such a bad thing!
And so I began . . .
Two and one-half years ago after taking an online memoir-writing course, I constructed a timeline of my memoir, using neon-colored stickies unfolding in scenes.
My instructor, a woman, advised, “Put your scenes into a sequence. Look for turning points. Then you can spot the high point in your story. That will help you construct your narrative arc.”
“Okay,” I thought, “that sounds easy enough.”
Being a visual learner, I proceeded to put heart and soul into plotting my story.
Then I took another online writing course. This time a male voice, surely in touch with his feminine side, assured me: “Plumb your emotional depths. The narrative arc of your story will reveal itself.” Sort of like a developing a Polaroid print.
Off went the multi-colored stickies. This time my notes formed a different shape.
It turned out, though, that the tip of my narrative arc was merely the climax of one dramatic scene.
Plowing through the Muddy Middle
Undaunted, I soldiered on, going back to the drawing board. In this post, I drew an analogy between a Swiss Alp and the arc of my narrative.
This year, other writers agreed to read my story. Their comments were mostly favorable. But two of them said,
“What is your story about, Marian”?
W H A T?
“Isn’t it obvious?” I thought.
“Apparently not,” I sighed, reflecting on my own query.
Otherwise, why would they ask such a question?
My last reader, a former colleague and author, suggested. “Why not start near the end? That way your story begins with dramatic tension. You have a better chance of hooking readers, pulling them into the life you have lived.”
“Well, that makes sense. That may be my next step.”
Two and one-half years later, that’s where I am now, revising scenes, editing, re-arranging order of chapters . . . re-visiting memories.
- Formulas often fail.
- Tracing one’s story with a certain strategy may lead to a dead-end.
- Wise counsel from others doesn’t necessarily translate to a good outcome – either because you misunderstood exactly what was meant OR the suggestion doesn’t fit your story OR because it’s not time to execute this strategy OR because _____________________.
- Myth is tangled with mystery.
- Memoir is tricky business. Memoirists are so familiar with their life story that they fill in the gaps in their minds without bringing the reader alongside on the page. Thus, the “thread” of their story may be lost.
- “Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end,” says young Sonny in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Other Authors Weigh In
Debby Gies, with the nôm de plume D. G. Kaye, exclaims:
When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen!
Shirley Showalter discusses the pain and pleasure of memoir writing in an article entitled “Why Writing Memoir is Hard . . . And Why You should Do It Anyway.”
Strive always to be truthful, but recognize that your truth may not always match the memory of others in your life. Choose those whose opinion matters most to you and share your story with them. Listen to their critique, but only change your work if you were wrong about factual details, time sequence or other external forces. Your feelings and thoughts are your own, and you need to find your own internal truth.
Here is where to find her sensible defense of leaving such a legacy.
As a reader, what grips your attention in memoirs or other non-fiction you’ve read?
As a writer, what tips can you add? Feel free to add links in comments.
How would you fill in the last blank under “Myth”?