Say you’ve begun a magazine-length piece of memoir writing. You’re learning to build scenes with vivid sensory and character details. You’re trying to give a balanced view of the real people who appear in your memoir writing. You’re trying to portray yourself as a regular human being, complete with flaws and good qualities. You’ve used research to fill the gaps in your memory. You’re beginning to see a plot-a storyline that feels like it’s going somewhere. Now what?
There is something you need to consider before you go further with your memoir writing. Maybe you won’t find the answer right away, but you need to think hard about the question: What is your story really about?
We often begin memoir writing in order to learn about ourselves. Somewhere along the way, we need to find a way to convey what we’ve learned about ourselves to the reader. A crucial shift takes place. We start memoir writing as the students of our own lives. Eventually, we become the teachers, saying to the reader, “Look, this is what my life means.”
An example: the “divorce story”
Let’s look at an example of a common memoir writing subject. Say you’re recounting the story of your parents’ ugly divorce. You’re dutifully incorporating all of the narrative elements listed above. You feel you’re doing a good job of portraying your parents sympathetically, without making excuses for their bad behavior or minimizing the effect of the divorce on you and your siblings.
Great. Now it’s time to dig deeper and ask yourself some tough questions about this particular piece of memoir writing. Why are you telling this story, of all the stories you could tell about your life? Because it shaped you. OK, but how did it shape you? Well, it upset you; you were a kid, and you didn’t understand what was happening to your family. Fair enough, but is that what the story’s really about?
As you become more concerned with what you’re imparting to the reader through memoir writing-that is, how the reader will react to and absorb what you’re saying-the writing becomes less about venting and more about wisdom. As you continue with memoir writing, you’ll realize things about your family and about yourself that you didn’t see when you were a child. You now have the adult perspective to put it all together. The reader needs and wants your interpretation of events, not because she can’t figure out the broader implications of your family turmoil for herself, but because she wants to know what you think and feel now about what happened back then.
The plot is not what your memoir writing is “really about.”
The plot of your memoir writing is only the reconstruction of events. It doesn’t bestow insight, and it doesn’t offer any conclusions. A story that involves divorce isn’t simply a story about divorce. It’s about the real life of a family.
What do you want to tell the reader about your family and about yourself through your memoir writing? Perhaps as you’re reconstructing a scene of a particularly ugly fight between your parents, you realize that you grew up wary of the idea of marriage. Maybe this is why you still find it hard to be in a relationship. Or maybe the real story is how you managed to learn from your parents’ mistakes and have since been able to form healthy partnerships. Or maybe the real story of your memoir writing isn’t primarily about you. Maybe it’s really about your father, who was never the same after the breakup. Maybe it’s about your older sister, who got the message at a young age that she would have to take care of you while your parents were busy tearing each other apart.
A short piece of memoir writing might need to focus on the effects of the divorce on one person in the family. In a book-length memoir, of course, you would have time to explore the effects on each family member. Then the story is about who comes through more or less intact and who doesn’t, and why. This, in my mind, is the great value of memoir writing. No one else can analyze your family in exactly the way you can, not even another family member, which means that you have something truly unique to say to the world. I was a psychology major in college, but I learned far more about the realities of human nature and human interaction from reading memoir writing than from reading psychology textbooks. Many people have experienced divorce, but no one has your particular insights into your past.
Should you temporarily put your memoir writing aside?
You may not know what you really want to say in your memoir writing until you’ve written a second, or a fifth, or a twelfth draft. It helps if you put each draft aside for a while and come back to it. What may not occur to you while you’re busy recreating scenes and trying to remember what your childhood bedroom looked like, might strike you later when you read your memoir writing with fresh eyes.
What does putting a draft aside “for a while” mean? How long is “a while”? That’s up to you. You’ll develop an instinct over time about when it’s right to continue working on a piece of memoir writing and when it should be put back in the drawer. Some people write entire books in under a year; I usually take a year or more to complete a short piece. Everyone is different.
The good news is that memoir writing, like any kind of creative writing, isn’t a race. It’s a process. Criticizing yourself harshly won’t help your memoir writing; it will only steal your creative energy. The task of writing something deep and true is enormous, and we can only achieve it in small, manageable steps. It’s OK to take a break when it becomes overwhelming, or when you temporarily lose motivation, or when you know what you want to say but you don’t yet know how to say it. Your memoir writing will always be there, waiting for you to return. The stories of our lives are within us already. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to draw them out.