I began writing my life’s story about twenty years ago. It started out as a novel because I thought it was safer that way. When I asked my publisher friend to cast a critical eye over it, she said it needed to be a memoir. “Oh, I thought memoirs were attributed to famous people only,” I replied. No, everyone has a story to tell, the common denominator being survival – victory over struggle. My friend set me on the right course. Here’s what I learned about this genre:
1. Read other authors’ memoirs
Some of my favourites, to name few, are The Color of Water, Too Many Mothers, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs, I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey, Angela’s Ashes. This is a great lesson is learning about the different styles of telling a story.
2. Breathe life into the story
The memoir doesn’t have to follow a chronological order like an autobiography. Write each incident independently and then shuffle them around like a jigsaw puzzle, linking them with good transitions when editing.
3. Non-fiction characterization
Just like a novel, the memoir has real characters. You may have biased views of the people you’re portraying, but the goal is to present them as living, breathing, individuals, warts and all.
The memory can be tricky and prone to playing Chinese Whispers with your mind, especially when it comes to painful stuff you’re reluctant to confront. But you must, to give your work an authentic voice.
Depending on your family dynamics (and the thickness of your skin) it might be best to wait till some are deceased before you make your story public. Some may well contest what you write about. But remember this is your memoir, your experience and your reality.
6. Be careful with dialogue:
You can’t always remember what someone said verbatim all those years ago but here’s where dialogue (and dialect) can add zing. Letting your characters tell parts of the story in their voice must be done with care. Make sure you as the narrator were present at the scene or when the character relates their perspective of that same scene. For instance, don’t say, “Eyes bulging with rage, Janet uttered through clenched teeth, ‘I’ll kill you,’” if you weren’t there witnessing the scene. But it’s okay to write, “According to Trudy, Janet’s eyes bulged with rage. She said through clenched teeth, “I’ll kill you.”
7. Don’t demand sympathy
When you’re writing for an audience, the purpose of your memoir must not be a therapy session or revenge exercise to garner sympathy from your readers. If it elicits negative emotions, it belongs in a diary for your eyes only.
8. Write, edit, rewrite a gazillion times
Winston Churchill famously wrote, “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.” Editing and rewriting ad naseum, will drive you nuts, but it is a necessary evil.
You can’t rely solely rely on memory traveling down that lane. It doesn’t exist exclusively in a bubble. It is often intertwined with historical events, politics, culture and so forth. Since the memoir is non-fiction, research needs to be done for accuracy.
10. Don’t work in isolation.
Join a writers’ group to get feedback from fellow scribes.