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.
- 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?