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The Key to Writing Good Memoir: Know How to Revise

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Recently, I went through earlier drafts of the memoir Silence: What the Israel Defense Forces Taught me about Courage, Empowerment and Faith, which I'm currently writing and discovered a chunk of really great suggestions for feedback. One of the suggestions was to think about how to turn the chapter where I've been selected to receive a coveted award known as the President's award which is given to just a handful of soldiers each year, into a scene where it's not just my own perception but I also show what happens when, who's there and the context and the setting of this special moment.

Clearly, at the time of writing these earlier drafts, I was just in the downloading stages, but the goal for any beginning writer which you may have learned from the three part learning series with Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association for Memoir Writers, is the kickstarting stage when you're just learning what drives your story, as well as the themes and the lessons.

Now, that I am in the muddy middle, and can identify wholeheartedly with the term Linda Joy Myers talks about in our interview, in part two of the learning series, that refers to the long haul of writing and discovering our story as a tapestry of scenes, there's also the "dark" side of revision.

The key to writing a good first draft of a memoir, which is the challenge that face most writers, is to navigate the chunky and uncertain terrain of feedback that can subsequently lead to thoughtful or cloudy revision steps.

Assuming one understands the nature of feedback itself, the next step is to plough forward with the revision demands but with an emotional mindset. Why is this important you may ask? At any time, we run the risk of not aligning the demands of what the feedback is asking from us to move to the next step with the way we actually feel about our own progress or story development.

Be Generous with Your Story
Essentially memoir writing involves deepening your relationship to yourself as a character in a scene while still telling the story. There are writers who might resist such suggestions as mentioned above. They might tell themselves, "what do I need to go forward with this scene? Isn't it enough to just mention or explain what happens? Won't the reader just get the understanding from what I said?

One of the great ills a reader may feel when reading someone else's unpolished memoir is that s/he doesn't feel much for the character and what happens to him or her since the scene is essentially underdeveloped. A writing mentor trained in memoir can provide encouraging feedback without having to push the writer to reveal too much information as s/he steadily emotionally processes.

Spend Time Getting in Touch with the Memories
It's interesting how this process works. In the earlier drafts, I just downloaded memory after memory without really worrying how to link one scene to the next. But then I noticed a surprising thing. After more than three months of everyday straight writing, I suddenly allowed myself to sit back and slip back into time.

One would think that by downloading memories, you are actually getting in touch with them, but I think it's your brain's way of emotionally processing.

Make Your Truth Speak Larger than Fiction

There were times (and there still are) in the muddy middle writing stage when I didn't have a name for a soldier I met or I didn't know what a particular soldier said to me in passing during basic training. After all, more than 23 years have passed since I was officially released from the Israel Defense Forces. It held back on the writing because I didn't have that information at hand.

If you too are stuck in this stage, my advice would be to imagine what a person might have said in conversation or to give a fictitious name to that person for the time being. You'll be amazed when you allow yourself to get past this stage. All of a sudden, your brain wants to move forward with the story. And you will.

Speaking your truth requires a great deal of "emotional reporting" from a narrator's point of view and what happens in the scene. When I convinced myself that it was okay to be fictitious with certain details, but I did not compromise on speaking my truth. In my case, I discovered that by reconnecting to the memories, there was a shy, anxious and insecure eighteen year old who suddenly found a common spotlight in a foreign culture and country, she didn't think was hers to begin with and so, she kept silent.

Memoir writing involves so many different skills and mindsets that it's important to have a balance of them all. A toolbox of what to do when and how is also a memoirist's best friend.

Have you experienced any of these issues or am I speaking just gibberish? I'd love to hear your thoughts and share your thoughts below.