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by Deborah Greenspan
Writing a memoir isn’t just a walk down memory lane. It’s a long swim in a deep ocean of thought and memory that evokes every emotion: regret, happiness, joy, sadness, fear, triumph, horror, disappointment, and more. If we cringed with embarrassment when we were fourteen, chances are the feelings will still be there and will be no less enjoyable the second time around. On the other hand, when writing a memoir, we can also recall and dwell on the wonderful moments as well. Assuming you’re ready to take the plunge, how do you go about writing a memoir?
Do you just start at birth, adding event upon event until you get to the present? Or is there something more involved? Will writing classes help you in writing a memoir? Should you study the hero’s journey or take apart works of fiction? Should you fictionalize your life or stay true to every detail?
I’m going to answer these questions and more, but first I have some questions for you. Since you are considering writing a memoir, the main question is “Why?” What is special about your life? Are you writing a memoir so your kids and grandkids can know you better? Are you writing a memoir because your life was so extraordinary, the world should know you better? Or are you writing a memoir because you think you’ve learned something during your sojourn here on earth and want to share it with the world? Maybe all these reasons apply.
If you’re writing a memoir for the world to read, then you want to write well and compellingly. On the other hand, family may be more forgiving of writing style and will read the book because they want to know you better. As a writer myself, I say make it the best book you can, so either way, before you start writing a memoir, you should learn everything about writing a memoir that you can. Family may be forgiving, but they may also put the book down without finishing it.
There are lots of ways to write a story, but certain methods are more gripping than others. For instance, do you really want to start at birth? Might it not be better to start with a dramatic event that somehow defines your life? If you do it right, that event will raise questions and create suspense and momentum that will make your readers, whoever they are, want to know more. Let’s say that at some point in your eventful life you were arrested. Start with that. But don’t give all the answers. Don’t tell the events that led you there; what you did or didn’t do. Just set the scene, introduce the characters, and then go back to the beginning and tell the story that leads up to that event.
When you leave the reader with questions, whether you’re writing a memoir or a novel, the reader will want to read on to find the answers. So look back and find an exciting moment when anything could happen. Maybe it was when your fiancee disappeared, and you didn’t know if she would show up for the wedding. Maybe it was the time when you bought a car, and it exploded. Maybe it was in school when you were teased by other kids. It doesn’t matter. The purpose of this event is to open the book and raise questions about you and who you are.
Whether writing a memoir or fiction, this opening gambit works, and I have many more ideas to share with you. But for now, at the very least, writing a memoir is a good way to put your life in perspective, creating better self understanding and meaning. For tips on writing that can be applied to memoirs as well as fiction, see The Secret Sex of Books published by Breezeway Books.