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So You Want To Write A Memoir?

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  • Tip Bones

When people ask me what I do for a living, some people reply by saying, "you mean writing is your hobby?" My reply depends on the individual asking and the mood I'm in at the moment. For the majority of the time, my answer usually is, "no, I write for a living, as a hobby, and it's my whole life." 

The ones who are interested in what I write, usually end their conversation with, "I want to write a book about my life." The problem with this I tell them is that everyone wants to write about their life. For some strange reason, everyone thinks they have an interesting life to write about. When ninety percent of the time, the real truth is, most of them have no clue what it takes to write an interesting memoir that a publisher would ever even consider publishing. In other words, you need to have something extremely different and rare these days to talk about. And you can't lie and fabricate about anything concerning a memoir. Doing this is a huge, big no-no. 

When you write a memoir, you better have factual information referenced. If not, the book will not impose on other readers as being genuine, and your book will be no more. 

I'm not trying to be negative. Instead, however, what I'm trying to do here for you, is save yourself from wasting an enormous amount of time, by doing this the correct way. Let me further elaborate on a positive note.

If you are really destined and committed to writing a memoir, go for it. Only make sure you have something very interesting to bring to the table. If you think you have a great life story to reveal to the masses, here are a few extra concepts to keep in mind when pursuing your dream writing your memoir...

From the memoir expert, Dorothy Miller:

First of all, a memoir is not an autobiography. “An autobiography is simply facts that you put down in chronological order. A memoir is your impression of those facts. It’s your emotional truth, your memory of the way it happened.”

For Miller, the current COVID- pandemic presents an opportunity to address these truths through writing. A former high school writing teacher, she taught students how to create a narrative.

“I worked with college-bound juniors and seniors, and I told them that they are going to be expected to be able to write,” Miller noted. “And then I taught memoir writing for adults, through a class at Kearney Park and Recreation.”

For many people, the shutdowns, event cancellations, and business closings have left long spaces of empty time, time that Miller believes could be used for writing. When it comes to chronicling life in the spring, Miller reminds writers to take a long view.

“That’s one of the first things people ask, what if I can’t remember everything perfectly?” she said. “You can’t lie. You can’t just add things that didn’t happen in a memoir. But it is definitely your perspective, through your own story, of what happened. Sometimes I think that exercise helps add some clarity to what is happening.”

For novice writers, Miller encourages them to think about who will read the narrative.

“Sometimes you pick up these books on how to write a memoir, and these professional writers assume that you want to write a book,” she said. “They jump right into theme and category, and how to sub-categorize your memoir. Do you want to write about travel or coming of age? They talk about scope and sequence, and the narrative arc. It can get a little intimidating.”

Miller advises writers to step back and ask a very basic question: What stories do I want to tell my children and my grandchildren?

“That kind of writing would be more like a life experience memoir because a patchwork of personal essays or anecdotes can even include photographs or poetry or even a news clipping from that time period,” she said. “You don’t have to be a novelist to write your memoir. If that’s your audience, and your purpose, to tell stories to your children and grandchildren, just start sifting through why you want to tell these stories. Avoid, avoid.

A daily journal can be a reference for a personal essay, Miller notes, but she urges writers to look beyond the simple facts to get to the heart of the events.

“I love the idea of a memoir because you are the character as well as the narrator,” she said. “I think there is this insight that comes from looking back at yourself as a character. When you write about yourself as a character, that can be a very interesting exercise. Even though it’s your memory, it’s still an exercise in objectivity.”

Miller cites the work of Joseph Campbell, a writer who explored comparative mythology and personal journey, as an influence or her work. Campbell noted that the person you become on the journey is more important than the quest itself.

In attempting to better understand time like the current pandemic, Miller suggests that writers start by listing the first several things that come to mind.

“You know they’re going to list the toilet paper thing,” she said of shortages of basic necessities.

Beyond that, writing helps to put the world into perspective. Miller spoke about her grandson, who is now taking classes online. When she asked what he missed the most, he said it was his friends.

“What is really bothering me about this? If you take the time to write it and look at it through self-inspection, you can understand. When you really start to self-reflect, the truth will come out. It’s helpful.”