Friday, April 12, 2013

How to Write a Memoir

Image from one of my favorite books of all time.

Dear Dr. Kate,
What do you recommend to writers who are working on memoirs?  I’ve been putting down ideas for some time but feel like I don’t know how to continue.
Neophyte Writer

Dear Neophyte Writer,

1.  Read a bunch of memoirs.

Read them not just as a reader but as a writer.  Pay attention to the variety of ways these writers linger on the most important moments, dig into scenes, reflect, move from chapter to chapter, and organize their stories.  You’ll see there are so many ways to do these things.  Books are your best teachers.  Here are a few of my favorites:
Just Kids (Patty Smith)
The Journal of a Solitude (May Sarton)
The Cactus Eaters (Dan White)
Wild (Cheryl Strayed)
Tales of a Female Nomad (Rita Gelman)
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (Nick Flynn)
She’s Not There (Jennifer Finney Boylan)
Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi)
Death in Slow Motion (Eleanor Cooney)
The Birdhouse Chronicles (Cathleen Miller)
Jesus Land (Julia Scheeres)
Paula (Isabele Allende)
This Boy’s Life (Tobias Wolff)
Little Princes (Conor Grennan)
The Glass Castle (Jeanette Walls; I recommend you read her “true life novel” Half Broke Horses first)
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers)
Any book by David Sedaris
There are a zillion more.  With a brief Googling, you can find ones you’ll love and can learn a lot from.
Also, some books about writing that you might like:  Writing Down the Bones(Natalie Goldberg), Wild Mind (Natalie Goldberg), and Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott).  If you feel “stuck,” read Writing the Natural Way (Gabriele Rico) and do the exercises in each chapter.

2.  Keep writing.

Find the juiciest moments, the most important scenarios, the meatiest stories–and dig into them.  Linger in them, and write and write.  Develop full scenes with sensory detail.  Help us feel like we are there.  Riff on connections to other memories, thoughts, reflections, feelings, mixed feelings, desires. Memoir is a rich combination of scene and reflection.  Help us see the locations and people keenly,so we can experience your life through your eyes. Also, whenever there’s an important moment coming, build up to it; develop the tension and conflict fully.  USE the books above to pay close attention to how all these writers do these things.

3.  Consider joining a writing group, or create one of your own.

I’m part of a writing group that meets once a month.  We share pages we’re working on, giving each other critical feedback and support.

4.  Consider starting a blog, in which you post short segments.

This way, you can “test drive” portions of your book.  And then you’re also building a readership for your book when it’s published.

5.  When it comes time to think about publishing, have a look at what I’ve said about:

6.  Enjoy the process. 

As Anais Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.”

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