Bringing your life story to life: writing memoir
by Jennifer Silva Redmond
I recently read an article in the Spectator called “Biography is a Thoroughly Reprehensible Genre.” The writer commented on the amount of pointless detail in most biography, and I see that often with my clients who are writing memoir—I always say that the trick with memoir is not what you put in but what you leave out.
But, the author of the article said something else that was key, “the chief problem with biography is that the fundamental precepts are wrong…the idea always seems to be that by gathering and establishing facts, cataloging testimonies and anecdotes, each life can be made a perfect whole — that the objective biographer will see to it that there has been a plan or pattern, and dignity is conferred.”
It’s exactly the same with memoir. Writing a memoir by simply assembling all the facts about your life in the months or years you’ve chosen to write about is a bit like doing a complicated jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box. You could keep adding detail—writing descriptions and adding information—but all along, you’d be wondering what it would all turn out to be.
That means, unfortunately, that if you’re writing a memoir about your battle with cancer, you will not have written a memoir because you kept a meticulous journal of every day in the two years from diagnosis to remission. There would be things in your daily journal that would be repetitive, or that simply don’t belong in your story, and details that would bore readers to death.
So, let’s assume you already have a great pile of notes, notebooks full of journaling, or other writing about the period in your life you’ve chosen to write about. How do you bring it to life, or bring it back to life? How do you know what belongs in the manuscript and what doesn’t?
I’m glad you asked.
You begin by figuring out what your story is about. That’s the essence of “pitching” any book concept, not just memoir. And that “pitch” (or “log-line” for you Hollywood types) is not just what happens in the book, like, for instance, “I’m autistic and in 2009, I climbed Mt Everest.” The pitch needs to include what you want people to get from what happened to you—what you learned along the way to that made you want to write the book. More like “I’m autistic, and, while climbing Mt. Everest, I learned that I can do anything I set my mind to.” Or, to go back to our first memoir concept: “I beat cancer by learning to listen very carefully to what my own body was telling me.”
Once you have clarified that specific goal, and know what you want to say in the book, the rest is easy…Well, actually it isn’t. But it is easier!
Hopefully, you can figure out this first step before you start writing, but it doesn’t always work that way. Perhaps you have a completed first draft of the memoir already and want to get it looked at by an editor, but you aren’t quite sure it is ready.
One sign will be if you finish your first draft and it’s over 120,000 words long. Not that a tight, well-crafted memoir can’t be that long, but most manuscripts that long will need cutting. Another sign is a memoir of only 40,000 words. The manuscript may have great bones (a strong idea and structural outline), but not enough meat on the skeleton; it probably needs to be fleshed out more to become the excellent book it can be.
My short-form nonfiction and memoir has been published in national magazines and anthologies, and oftentimes the challenge of figuring out where and how to start writing was solved once I came up with a title for my essay. After all, writing an essay is basically defending an argument. So, my essay’s title (or a story “pitch”), gives me a constant goal to aim for, which is sticking to that point—that argument, if you will—and keeping that message clear throughout the book.
So, you can look at every one of the hundreds of notes you have amassed (or any questionable segment in the manuscript you’ve written) and say to yourself “Does this help me to further clarify or prove this book’s point?” If not, out it goes.
Don’t scream—of course, there will be pieces that seem tangential but turn out to reveal something that is important, or that take us readers somewhere we need to go, and those will stay in. But you do have to be ruthless, even before you start working with an editor. Be honest with yourself—is this tangent only staying in the book because you liked writing about it? Or because you think you wrote it really well? Remember the line about “killing your darlings”? You have to, even in memoir.
With your book’s overarching point firmly established in your mind, you (and eventually your editor) can find ways to eliminate false starts and dead-ends that could doom your memoir, and find a clear path to resurrect your story and share it with the world.
Jennifer Silva Redmond is a freelance editor and publishing consultant, as well as a popular writing instructor and speaker. Long-time editor-in-chief and acquisitions editor at award-winning Sunbelt Publications, she teaches at the Southern California Writers Conference, San Diego Writers, Ink, was prose editor for A Year in Ink Vol 3, and co-founder of the critically acclaimed Sea of Cortez Review. Her essays, articles, and fiction have been published in anthologies, magazines, and books, including Latinos in Lotusland and A Year in Ink; More info, a select list of edited books, and client testimonials can be found at www.jennyredbug.com.
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