Ask why someone enjoyed a novel and the answer is often ‘I loved reading about people’s lives; about people finding their way through hard times, or having adventures or understanding small things or big things or finding love and living…living well, even happily (yes, you can fill in ‘ever after’).
Whether fiction or non-fiction, writing stories about fascinating characters or events is what fills writers time; keeps us scrabbling for the perfect words to describe it. And devising fascinating characters can take huge effort and time (and is the topic of hundreds of creative writing classes!). But what if the story you want to tell is about a life you know - your own?
Hundreds of guides for writing memoir/life stories attest to the popularity of the genre and the need, many find, to document their life and find meaning in doing just that. Stephen King, superb storyteller and author of On Writing - one of the best guides to writing, says, “I write to find out what I think”. So perhaps, you’re writing about the one you think you know. And, you find out so much more in the telling. Perhaps it isn’t until you set an experience down on paper, and unearth the perfect description, that you fully appreciate or understand it.
But, must you have had a dramatic life to make it worth the effort? Is it only those who’ve had the ‘hardscrabble youth’ (Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle) or ‘excruciating childhood’ (Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes) who have something to say; some lesson about hardship and endurance or even eccentric families that keeps us reading, relating, relieved because we’re not relating and comforted by the eventual triumph of human spirit that those ‘misery memoirs’ generally hold.
I think not. It may make the difference between whether they are published or not, but worth telling? Of course. And memoirs can be about anything, small or seemingly inconsequential things, or the larger more dramatic (big life events, injustices, crime, hardship). Everybody has stories shelved in their subconscious, stories that are awaiting translation. And there are as many different kinds of life stories as there are lives.
“Memoir is about handing over your life to someone and saying, ‘This is what I went through, this is who I am, and maybe you can learn something from it’,” says Walls. “So many of us think that certain things only happened to us and somehow they make us less of a person. I’m constantly urging people to write about their lives. It was hugely eye-opening for me and very cathartic. Even if the book hadn’t sold a single copy, it would still have been worth it.”
And it might just get published, become a blockbuster and be made into a film. What could I be thinking of? Yes, Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, resonated (despite the film) hugely around the world because it hit the zeitgeist; spoke to thousands who wanted to break out of their pain or even plain lives and grab more (oh, and find love); and it keeps funding a massive industry of travellers, many of whom find Bali and balians immensely attractive. (But that’s another article.)
So, think you might want to write your memoir?
Tips for getting started
You don’t have to be a professional writer or someone with connections in publishing to succeed. But there are ways to coax the story out; make things less daunting.
1. Write memoir, not autobiography. Autobiography is the story of an entire life, but memoir is just one story from that life. It’s a much less intimidating viewed that way.
2. Don’t begin at the beginning. Don’t be predictable and tell your story chronologically. But find the hook; a good beginning is a tease, giving readers enough to hook them without divulging the outcome.
3. Diagram your life. Give yourself space, time and a large sheet of paper! Plot your life’s most significant moments using critical choices (leaving a country, leaving a job), influential people (father, teacher, first love), conflicts (personal/world politics), beliefs, lessons, even mistakes and find the events that stand out as intriguing and/or meaningful. Experiment till you find the one story wanting to be told, the experience that really formed you. Start there.
4. Use all your senses. Create vivid worlds that transport readers by using all your senses to fully recreate a moment. Writers relish detail (in reality and in stories) so practice: next time you’re waiting (restaurant, office, traffic) notice the sights, sounds, smells, and textures.
5. Build your writing muscle. Have a daily goal - 200, 500, 1,000 words. Make a regular time (early morning?) and be disciplined. Don’t worry about making it perfect. Just focus on getting the story out. (There will be plenty of time for polishing later.)
Be warned though: some of what comes back may be painful. “Writing memoir is like preparing for confession,” says McCourt, who didn’t publish Angela’s Ashes until he was 66. “It entails honesty and can’t be effective if you’re worried about family and friends looking over your shoulder. If it is truthful, then there’s no other way to present it. At the least, readers will recognise the courage in that and respect you for it.” And Walls adds: “A smart therapist once told me that what I had done was exactly what he tries to get patients to do - confront the truth, … and this was my way of coming to terms with it. The things that haunt you, that have power over you-once you confront them, they lose their power”.
Finally, some wisdom from William Zinsser (master storyteller and writing teacher) “Two words: think small. Don’t rummage around in your past - or your family’s past -to find episodes that you think are ‘important’ enough… Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognise from their own life”.
Remember: many say that beginning is half done. So, begin and, above all, relax. The anxiety to ‘get it right’ can be paralysing but memoir is the easiest type of writing to do well. You’ve already ‘lived’ the research. You’re intimately familiar with every character. Now… tell it.
The next UWRF is 3-7 October 2012.
Shelley Kenigsberg’s editing retreats are held in Australia and Bali (after UWRF). See editinginparadise.com <http://editinginparadise.com>