It Goes Like This: Writing your Memoir

So it goes like this: You want to write your memoir. You already have a title--a clever little dare of a thing. You have a cover in mind--the torn edge of a photograph, or a collage you made, or typography both sparse and unafraid.
08/06/2013 11:25 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

So it goes like this: You want to write your memoir. You already have a title--a clever little dare of a thing. You have a cover in mind--the torn edge of a photograph, or a collage you made, or typography both sparse and unafraid. You know who will blurb this book for you when you ask, and (your mother raised you well) you have a running list of names to fold into the multi-page acknowledgments. You've even typed the number of your favorite bakery into your iPhone, because you have a delicious notion about how to sweeten your launch.

It's the next part that confounds you. The actual shaping of your life on the page. All those hours, days, months, years? You lived them, but how do you parse them? All those conversations (you know you had them, the echoes ring in your ears), but where did the actual, quotable words go? All those thoughts, those epiphanies, those evolved considerations: Who turned the light off on them? Where'd they go?

Still, look at how many memoirs get published each year. Still, look at your life; it has value. There must be a way to get this done--to translate the story you lived into the story you'll tell, and to do it artfully. As an always hopeful, sometimes chastised memoir writer and as a teacher of the art form at the University of Pennsylvania, I know how difficult this translation is, and how precarious, and how (often) rewarding.

Here are some of the things I tell myself and my students when the memoir work begins. Much more can be found in my new book, Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, and on my blog, where I muse out loud about books I love and the things they've taught me.

  1. Read memoir before you write memoir. I annotate nearly one hundred personal favorites in Handling the Truth--and share my thoughts on what makes them transcendent. Find the memoirs you love, read them closely. What do they teach you about structure, voice, and form?

  • Find your voice. Test it. Succumb to a few unassuming exercises. Write the weather of now, for example, then write the weather of then. Write about a favorite remembered meal. Write about a turning point. Small writing exercises can teach you a number of things about what your eye sees and what your language is capable of and how your memory works. They can lead you toward the themes you'll need to hang your memoir on.
  • Experiment with form. Memoir isn't always a first-person tale. Mark Richard and others have proven the power of a second-person memoir. bell hooks shows what can happen when several different voices tell a single true story. Graphic memoirists capture the past with the images they draw. Give yourself permission to produce a non-traditional memoir. You may return to the first person pronoun in the end. But you will have given yourself room to make an informed decision.
  • Embrace research. Memoir may be a story about you, but memory is fallible and a good memoir is always bigger than the person whose life is being recorded. Go back into your scrapbooks and your photographs. Read old books and newspapers, too. Find out more about the life you lived. Don't presume that it's all just "in there."
  • Remember that even if the purported subject of a memoir is one person's life, the true power of the genre lies in its ability to frame and speak to universal concerns.
  • Give yourself room not to know, not to remember. Give yourself no room to knowingly misrepresent the truth or others. Readers have compassion for those who look back and sometimes find fog. They're less forgiving of liars.
  • Remember that memoir is not autobiography. There's a crucial, sustaining difference.
  • Remember that in writing about you, you are always writing about other people, too. That's all I need to say about that.