“I think most memoir writers write first of all for ourselves, not for any specific audience. We write for our own clarity. The painful admissions, the ways in which we are upset by ourselves, our actions, things we did, things we failed to do, all of that has to be honestly faced. No point in skirting the truth. Who would we be fooling? Ourselves?” — Abigail Thomas Excerpt from “Memoir is Exploration, So Keep Yourself Open: An Interview with Abigail Thomas” By Dinty W. Moore, Brevity magazine Abigail Thomas is the author of many acclaimed memoirs, including A Three Dog Life, Safekeeping, and What Comes Next and How to Like It. She lives in Woodstock, New York, with her dogs. Dinty W. Moore is the founder and editor of Brevity magazine and is likely out in his garden at this very moment.
When writing memoir, the question often comes up, should you use real names? There are no cookie-cutter answers. No one-size-fits-all. In “Between Two Kingdoms” Suleika Jaouad handled the situation by stating in the front of the book, “To preserve the anonymity of certain individuals, I modified identifying details and changed the following names, listed in alphabetical order: Dennis, Estelle, Jake, Joanie, Karen, Sean, and Will.” Tara Westover, author of “Educated,” changed the first name of her parents and siblings. Phuc Tran, author of “Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In” decided to keep “the real names of all adults and changed the names of minors not related to him and adult names he forgot. He said his ‘tenuous’ relationship with his parents meant he didn’t care about their opinions and made his book easier to write, noting, ‘I wrote without worrying…
Use a published memoir as a textbook to write your memoir. Read the memoir. Read it again to examine structure. Notice where author used narration vs. dialogue to tell the story. Notice the balance between fast-paced action scenes and slower, contemplative scenes. Note when and how backstory is used. Let’s use Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt as our textbook. McCourt’s ability to write as if experiencing events as they unfold, pacing, and his strong writing voice made Angela’s Ashes a New York Times beloved best seller. Angela’s Ashes takes the reader on an emotional journey. There is so much vulnerability in this book. McCourt reaches into our compassionate hearts as he tells his story, moving from childhood to adulthood. He weaves details into a story, similar to the Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. McCourt taps into universal messages and themes. Understanding your theme will help to write your memoir. Possible…
Writing is the way I try to make sense of my life, try to find meaning in accident, reasons why what happens happens. Sometimes just holding a pen in my hand and writing milk butter eggs sugar calms me. Truth is what I’m ultimately after—truth or clarity. Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and how you got to be who you are. — Abigail Thomas, “Thinking about Memoir,” AARP magazine, July/August 2008
Whether you tell your story chronologically, or with flashbacks, or with intercutting, it’s important to write your memoir in the voice of the narrator. Examples of these different ways of telling a story are used in The Write Spot Anthology: Discoveries. “Maintaining a solid narrative structure is critical to ensure readers move in step with the sequence of life events. . . When they [readers] can follow your progression as a character, they can also fully enter your story.” —Dorit Sasson, “Refresher Course,” The Writer, February 2016 Note from Marlene: When writing about something that happened in childhood, use appropriate age-based language. Show character growth by using adult language when writing about the character as an adult. Examples of narrative structure, character growth and details on how to use intercutting in your writing can be found in The Write Spot Anthology: Discoveries.
Should your memoir have a theme? Yes, according to Brooke Warner. “Your memoir has an atmosphere, the air a reader breathes, and it’s called theme. Its presence is felt in every scene, whether or not it’s explicitly named by the author.” —Brooke Warner, “Back to Port,” The Writers, February 2016 “If your theme is vague, such as transformation, try to articulate what initiated your transformation.” Warner gives the example of Wild by Cheryl Strayed and H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, both about transformation while working through grief. Find your theme and tell your story. Read Brooke’s guest blog post, here on The Write Spot Blog: Why Keep Writing When No One Is Listening. Just Write!
Submit your 600-word essay reflecting your writing life to Writer’s Digest magazine. Email to wdsubmissions –at-fwcommunity.com with “5-Minute Memoir” in the subject line. Use Prompt #319 for ideas on what to put in your 5-Minute Memoir. Samples of published 5-Minute Memoirs: Fear and Loathing and Fitzgerald You Can’t Go Home Again
Remember the joke: “How do you eat an elephant?” “One bite at a time.” Same with writing memoir . . . one incident at a time. “Whether your life story has an over-arching motif or you plan to cobble together a montage of more diverse meditations, the project can seem less overwhelming if you approach it as a series of mini memoirs—two-to three-page essays . . . pivotal points. . . in the broader portrait of your life.” Richard Campbell, January 2017 Writers Digest “The beauty in approaching your life story in terms of mini memoirs is that when it comes to themes, you don’t have to pick just one. Write scenes or vignettes on each theme that speaks to you. You may find that mini memoirs unfold more naturally than the more unwieldy, longer story you have to tell—and that they build momentum strong enough to carry you through…
Helen Sedwick, author of Coyote Winds, believes “Memoirists are the bravest of writers.” “In exploring the journeys of their lives, they [memoirists] delve into the private (and imperfect) lives of others. Can a memoirist write about surviving abuse without getting sued by her abuser? Can a soldier write about war crimes without risking a court-martial? Helen answers these questions in her guest blog post “A Memoir is not a Voodoo Doll.” We lead rich lives, most of us. Rich in experiences, in friendships, in family, and in our work. I think you can find riches to write about. So, whatchya waitin’ for? Start writing. And don’t worry about a thing. Just write.
Guest Blogger, attorney Helen Sedwick, writes: Memoirists are the bravest of writers. In exploring the journeys of their lives, they delve into the private (and imperfect) lives of others. Can a memoirist write about surviving abuse without getting sued by her abuser? Can a soldier write about war crimes without risking a court-martial? Yes, but a cool head is key. Considering the thousands of memoirs published each year, there are relatively few lawsuits. Claims are difficult and expensive to prove. Most targets don’t want to call attention to a matter best forgotten. However, it’s important for memoir writers to be aware of the legal risks. You can’t avoid risk 100% of the time, but you can learn to take the ones that are important to your narrative arc and minimize those that are not. What is Safe Territory? You may write about a person in a positive or neutral light….