Memoirs are magic. Reading the story of another person’s life brings can be some of the greatest acts of intimacy that art is capable of achieving. At their most powerful, great memoirs bring comfort, for they are often lighthouses on our own turbulent journeys through crisis. To read how someone else navigated their illness, divorce, injury or trauma can be a fundamental part of how we heal ourselves.
But of course, when we’re writing them, we don’t know that. It’s impossible to tell, from the writer’s side of the fence, just how a memoir will affect its readers. The memoirist can only compile the pieces of their story and attempt to sew them together. It’s often an emotional and difficult process.
Some of you may already have been inspired by Jennifer McDonald’s Vegetarian Vampires, which marries anecdotal memoir with a modern day secular spiritual text. Jennifer’s next book, released very soon, will be derived from her incredibly popular blog The Big Breast Adventure, which is the upfront account of how she navigated her breast cancer diagnosis. With these works in mind, we have three essential tips for writing memoir.
Don’t forget your reader
First drafts of memoir can often be over-stuffed with extraneous info. When you’re just starting to stretch your muscles and get used to the idea of telling your story, you’ll want to put in everything. Often, re-drafting a memoir is an act of cutting and re-shaping the work to keep the reader in mind. The reader won’t need to know a lot of the information that you see as an inevitable part of your story. The reader, like all readers, will want to be entertained and enthralled. So from the rough foundations of your first drafts, you’ll likely need to start thinking very differently about your story. What’s important to the reader? What’s the emotional connection? What’s funny, inspiring or revelatory? Memoir is, of course, about you, but it’s equally about the reader.
What’s true and what’s real
While you’re keeping the reader in mind, you may be forced to make editorial decisions that stray away from what was ‘real’. Frequently, for example, two characters may become one. Or a week of blank time may become truncated into a day. The names (or even genders and physical descriptions) of some people in your life may change when they find their way to the page. In this way, reality is altered but the truth of the story remains the same. Often these decisions come about to make your story simpler. Sometimes they can also be employed to avoid legal entanglements. This line in the sand is tricky to navigate for some. Take James Frey’s ‘A Million Little Pieces’, famously set ablaze by Oprah’s Book Club when certain scenes from the ‘memoir’ were found to have never taken place. On the other hand, you have famous works such as Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, celebrated and sold as a piece of fiction, but which is entirely a very thin veil of his actual life.
Overall, the lesson to take away from this is to be careful with the truth. But you can be relaxed, at least a little, with what’s real. Character’s names, or locations or details may change, but the truth of the story must remain intact. Otherwise, it’s a work of fiction.
Embrace your voice
The success or failure of a memoir often relies on the author’s voice. Jen’s works, for example, are incredibly conversational and direct. One of the most famous and successful memoirists of our time, Stephen Fry, has an incredibly unique tone. We read these works not only for the story, but for the voice of the story-teller sharing it. We want to feel close to the person telling the story. We want to be an old, trusted friend, sitting at the bar with the author as they spin us a tale.
So attempts to hide your voice in impressive literary technique, or dry historical fact, are ultimately going to make your memoir limp. Think of the work as a story you would tell an old friend. Embrace your sense of humour and your pattern of speech. Your reader’s will be grateful.