Memoir is much more than just writing down an aspect of your life story.
In fact, if you do that, it's unlikely that anyone will read it. Because people want a character they can empathize with and a narrative arc that follows a transformation, as well as immersive setting and emotion that help them live within the story.
All aspects of writing fiction.
In today's article, Michael Mohr explains some tips for using fiction techniques in your memoir.
I am a writer as well as a book editor — and former literary agent’s assistant — and, when I got the chance to edit former neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini’s memoir, White American Youth, I jumped at the chance. [Note, Christian is now a prominent anti-hate campaigner.]
It took us one year to complete his book and, when he was done, he self-published. It sold 15,000 copies, then an agent picked him up. The agent sold the book to Hachette, who re-released the book. Here are some key points about writing memoir.
Memoir should be written very much like a novel.
New writers often assume that, because memoir is autobiographical, it should be “told” to readers, in the fashion of the autobiographies of the 1950s and 60s. This is not true.
Instead, memoir needs to be like a novel: There should be a “plot,” character ARC (the lead character [the author in this case] should start out one way and end another), voice, tension, scene, showing versus telling, etc.
There should be some exposition, strong setting, rising action, a climactic moment (or moments), and resolution.
All of this, of course, must be grounded, for memoir, in true life experience.
1. Like novels, memoir must use details
Richly described detail is important for any book, fiction or memoir. Placing the reader THERE. Use of the 5 senses. The 5 W’s: Who, what, when, where, why. Every chapter—every scene—should have these 5 Ws answered and each chapter and scene should contain enough rich detail to make readers feel as if they are actually in the experience alongside the author/narrator.
Mary Karr in The Art of Memoir talks about this, referring to “carnal details.”
Detail, for memoir, as in fiction, is your shining light. If you can make people identify, relate, empathize, by using carnal details, making them feel it, smell it, see it, hear it, taste it…then you’ve solved a significant piece of the puzzle. They’ll think, Yes, I, too, have had that experience. I’ve been in those shoes.
Example: Don’t just say: “I walked down the hallway.”
Say: “I started down the hallway. It was hardwood flooring, old, uneven, and it creaked as my boots landed softly on each step, like a slowly drifting ship. Every time my boot landed, I felt my heart thudding in my ears.” The first example is vague and general. The second—using detail—is specific and vivid. This one makes us feel as if we’re actually there with the narrator.
2. Scene is just as important in memoir as it is in novels
In other words: Don’t summarize or “tell” or explain to readers about what happened in the past…show it. Go through your summary sections describing what happened and replace most of them with action scenes that demonstrate to readers what actually happened.
It’s ironic but, consider the dictum: Actions speak louder than 1,000 words. Yes, these are still “words.” But by showing us, via scenes using action, readers can experience the character/narrator for themselves, making their own decision about their moral goodness or lack thereof. (Usually it’s more gray area and complex, of course.)
This is far superior to summary where the author robs the reader of coming to their own conclusion because they are barred from seeing what actually happened. Another reason scene is key is that it is more entertaining and thus you’re less likely to lose readers’ attention.
Summary: “I was angry about what James said. He shouldn’t have said that. I wanted to punch the guy.”
Scene: “I walked up to James’s door. Knocked. I felt my throat tightening. My right hand was balled into a fist. My pulse raced. I heard boots clomping from the other side of the door. He unlocked it. I heard a train whistle blow somewhere behind me in the distance. The door opened. Before I could even think I swung my arm. My fist connected with James’s face. He yelled, backed up. I stepped up over the door jamb, shoved him back, entered the house.”
Again, see how much more visceral and real the scene-version seems compared to the vague and general summary?
Clearly with memoir you can’t make things up like you can in fiction. This must be real. These things must have truly happened. But hopefully you’ve got some juicy scenes in mind if you’re writing a book about your life.
3. ARC is king
As the author, in memoir you’re describing your past life. Or, more aptly, a section of your life. Remember: Memoir is not a whole autobiography going from birth to your current day. It describes a segment of your past: The teen years or two years in your mid-twenties when you traveled around the world, etc.
The narrator, even in memoir — maybe especially in memoir — like in a novel must transform, must change. They start out one way, end up another. And we see that transformation slowly over the course of the book.
The main character should have learned something by the end. Become different in some fundamental way.
I would advise new memoirists to sketch out how the “I” in their story changes over the course of the book, before even beginning the writing. Find your key ARC points for the protagonist/narrator, where they discover revelations along the way.
Like fiction, readers, for memoir, need to see the narrator struggle. There’s something the narrator wants. They set out to get it. As they maneuver, they are prevented in various ways from getting that thing.
There should be an external thing and a deeper internal yearning/longing/need/desire that is driving them through the story.
- What pushes the character to keep going?
- What will happen, internally and externally, if they don’t get that thing?
- What do they fundamentally want?
The movement was great for him, at first, until he started encountering various problems associated with it: Violence; law enforcement; estrangement from his family; fear of retribution; self-loathing; etc. Eventually, he fled the movement.
But this left more hurdles and change to come. Now he had to truly face his demons. That was a new mountain to climb.
Hurdles for your “I” narrator in memoir might be: A young African American male trying to rise above racist police brutality. A kid growing up in Syria wanting to flee in order to survive. A young woman hoping to extricate herself from incest. A gay couple who love each other in 1950s Utah. An alcoholic trying to get sober. Etc.
The list could go on ad infinitum.
- What are the hurdles in your true life story?
- What are you trying to surmount?
- What is the deeper drive/motivation pushing your “I” narrator?
- Under the external thing, what did you truly want?
Every novel and memoir requires strong voice. There is debate on this but, in my view, there is no real way to “teach” voice. Either you have it or you don’t.
But certainly you can cultivate it.
How? In the same way that you gain confidence with anything in life.
- Write every day or as often as you can.
- When you write, practice mimicking other writers’ voices.
- Read as often as you can to take in other writers’ voices.
- Gain life experience so that you feel like a personal expert.
- Do this for long enough and your own natural voice will begin to seep out onto the page.
Yes, memoir needs, for lack of a better word: plot. This seems counterintuitive since the word “plot” brings to mind “made up.” With memoir, clearly, you must be telling the truth. (Memoir is, to a degree, also about “emotional truth” since memory is a faulty, confusing thing, and since most of us can’t realistically recall exactly what happened 10, 15, 25 years ago. But do your best. Stick to what you remember. Check with others who were there. Be self-critical about your memory.)
However, within that truth, you must have enough of a real life “story” to write a memoir. I agree that anyone can essentially write a memoir about anything if written well enough. Nabokov's Speak, Memory comes to mind.
But, for most of us non-geniuses, we will have to rely on a good story. If you’ve lived a life you feel is worth telling to a large audience…then you have nothing to fear: Presumably, that “plot” is inherently present.
What I mean when I say plot is: Things need to happen. A leads to B which leads to C. We’re moving. One chapter leads to the next. This happens which forces that to happen. You actually did things, experienced movement in your life. Or something dramatic happened to you.
7. Character development
Read how-to books about this such as David Corbett’s The Art of Character. Corbett breaks it down, saying that characters have five basic experiences:
- The character needs something
- She’s having difficulty getting it
- She exhibits a contradiction
- Something unexpected happens
- There’s a secret
This is whittled down to its most basic, stripped component. But you get the drift.
Most of these come easy to memoir writers because this happens in real life all the time. Again, I’m not suggesting that you change anything to fit this model if it didn’t happen…when writing memoir. But be aware that readers [unconsciously] look for this.
So if your life story — the years you’re focusing on — happen to genuinely include this…well…you’re ahead of the curve. Since humans are flawed and make unexpected decisions all the time…it isn’t that hard to find this material in one’s own life.
8. Make readers care about your narrator. (About you, the author.)
No doubt your memoir is important to you. It’s your past. Your life. If it wasn’t important I’d be worried.
But. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to feel relevant or important to the average reader. Just about everyone has “a story.” You need to not only have a story that feels like it has legs on its own — Christian having been one of America’s first neo-Nazi skinheads counts here — but also you need to have the ability to write that story well. (Which means you’ll need help from other people.)
I think memoir writers have more pressure than novelists. It’s more restricted than fiction, of course, because it’s not made up. There are guidelines one must follow. Boundaries one must stay within when it comes to content. (Otherwise you’ll end up like James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, who got slammed by Oprah for lying in his memoir.)
Write your story. Self-edit. Hand it off to some trusted readers. Get feedback. Revise. Self-edit again. Repeat.
Getting those fresh, objective, non-emotionally attached eyes on your MS can really help. No author gets their book off the ground alone.
9. Plot out your story before you start writing
After a while you may abandon the outline but, more than fiction, I think this is helpful for memoir. The reason I say this is because most of us have a tendency to want to write…fiction. To bend the truth. But if you do that in memoir you’ll end up way off the mark.
So, start by jotting down notes of the time you want to cover. Then carve an outline from that material of what happened, what you feel you want/need to include, people involved, actions that occurred, etc. This can really help you frame the story in your mind.
Once you’ve got that down, read some How-to memoir books. (Again, Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir is a great start.) Read some memoirs. Get acquainted with the genre. And then, when this is all sitting in your head, pregnant, begging to spill out…sit down at your desk and, as Hemingway said: “Bleed onto the page.”
Get out there and write your memoir.
Have you considered writing a memoir? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Michael Mohr is a Bay Area writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in: Adelaide Literary Magazine; Bethlehem Writers’ Roundtable; Fiction Magazines; Tincture; Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest, Writer Unboxed and MASH. His writing/editing website and weekly blog is www.michaelmohrwriter.com.
His client Christian Picciolini’s memoir, WHITE AMERICAN YOUTH: My Descent into America's Most Violent Hate Movement—and How I Got Out was released by Hachette Books December 26, 2017.