Memoir Writing: Back to the Basics

I’m happy to share here a truly excellent guest blog recently posted on writing guru, Jane Friedman’s, web page that revisits the basics of Memoir Writing. Not being formally educated in story telling and creative writing myself and not having even attempted story telling and creative writing until 2008, it took me the better part of seven years to self-learn and get up to speed on what it meant to write a story and to write creatively.

Jane Friedman’s guest blogger, Cyndy Etler, shares “How to Write Your Memoir with Fun, Easy Lists”

The title of the post is a bit deceiving, because this post does way more than its lighthearted title suggests. It is a basic primer of all that is necessary to pull off writing a coherent memoir. It is everything that it took me the better part of seven years to understand and retain (by reading countless how-to-write-memoir blogs, and how-to-write-memoir books, and reading good memoirs written by good writers and so-so memoirs written by good writers and trying to figure out what made one good and one so-so, etc.). But take note: Etler’s post is way more than the fabulous primer it promises to be. It’s the one post you might do well to re-read after having written your first draft . . . and second draft . . . and third draft. This post might be the very thing to save you when you’ve somehow drifted off from your original plan, when perhaps you started off winging it (you pantster, you!) and now need structure, or you carefully planned it out (you plotter, you!) but lost your notes or your focus along the way.

Memoirs are far more difficult than I imagined (I know this after tackling several drafts of my own and helping a good friend with his own), especially if story telling and creative writing is new to you. I know there are tons of people out there who are like me, who have experienced something so profound, they feel compelled to write (possibly for the first time in their lives). To them, I say, “Go for it! Write that memoir!” It’s not easy. It takes lots of self-study if you were never schooled in story telling and creative writing, but I think it’s worth it to learn what you can from the massive amount of resources out there (search ‘memoir blogs’ in any search engine and be prepared to be overwhelmed). It’s enough to get you going, and the rest of it will depend on what you already subconsciously know about telling stories and doing it well–whether via your instincts or via your lifetime exposure to good books, movies and ballads, and even your memories of those storytelling friends and relatives in your own life whose stories made an impression on you. All of this counts as your self-education in the rewarding (though sometimes frustrating!) realm of writing stories and, specifically, writing memoir for the first time.


Writer’s Journal_10: Writing Past the Pain in Memoirs

Even though it is often painful to write my memoir, I have found that writing about the pain has allowed me to push past some of the pain. The end result is an understanding that didn’t exist when I started. And so the memoir morphs. It changes in tone the longer I work on it. It is my therapy–a gift I give to myself, a lesson I learn for myself. And therefore, it sticks. I’ve arrived by myself at realizations I’ve navigated to by myself. In the future, when I’ve forgotten these lessons, I’ll read my own words and will not be able to refute them and the sanctity of what I have come to know. I can trust myself to know myself best, to believe my own guidance on what I have found to be true for me.

Copyright @ 2016 | All rights reserved.

Writer’s Journal_9: Digging Deep for Meaning in Memoirs

If my memoirs were only a capture of the facts and events as they’ve happened, I’d be able to publish one of my books this year and likely the other one next year.

But writing memoir is not about just chronicling facts and events. Writing memoir is about recalling and interpreting facts and events into something meaningful.

Yes, the events of our lives happened. BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

“What it means” is the whole point of writing memoir. For many of us who write or read memoirs, it is what drives us to write our own and to voraciously read someone else’s. We don’t want to regurgitate the facts or read someone else’s regurgitated facts. We want to piece together the clues of our own lives and determine what it all means. We want to read someone else’s clues and see what they believe it all means compared to what we may think it all means.

The best memoirs, in my opinion, are the ones that dig deepest, the ones that are difficult to write and often difficult to read because of what they uncover. I’m trying to stay mindful of this as I pace back and forth today, digging deeper . . . deeper still.

Copyright @ 2016 | All rights reserved.

Writer’s Journal_8: Third Draft is Just the Start of the Art

For some fiction or memoir writers, a third draft might be a final draft. For me, however, my third draft of memoir #1 is still a lump of wet clay–mostly centered, spinning on the wheel, but awaiting the artist’s hand to shape it into something beautiful. No pressure (cha, right!).

This is real life and it’s taking a while for the nuances in my story to emerge, for the patterns of my life to be revealed to me through my own relentless investigation. The patterns will help me to weave a deeper story, and a deeper story is where the art lives.

Copyright @ 2016 | All rights reserved.

Writer’s Journal_7: Crap

I stare at the sullen face staring back at me in the mirror . . . I look like crap. I’m only a week into what will be a month-long marathon of rewriting and editing, and already I look like a vampire. The artificial blue-white light of the moon and my computer screen are reflected in the darkening blue circles creeping out from under the corners of my eyes.

Memoir #1 looks like crap to me at times, too, depending on what else I allow to influence me. Today, it is an article in a writing magazine about plot points, about successful fiction books having a tantalizing crisis, climax, and closing. I’m writing a memoir, not an autobiography, so it must moonlight as fiction–not that it be fabricated, but that it borrow from useful, successful storytelling techniques. I fret at times with this memoir, because life doesn’t always follow a neat crisis-climax-closing structure. Sometimes, it is crisis, climax, crisis, climax, crisis, climax, and eventually a closing of some sort (before the next crisis and climax muddy the mix again). Almost as often as day turns into night and back into day, I change my decision of where memoir #1 will begin and end.

I feel drained, like I want to trash this book. I wonder how I’ll make it through the next three or four weeks like this.

In response to my downward spiral, I make a command decision to stop writing and editing, to escape the draining blue-white of the computer and instead bask in the replenishing yellow-bright of the sun. I set up a lounge chair in the backyard and lay my sick body down so it can soak in as many rays as I imagine might replenish a body with Vitamin D and positive energy. After 15 minutes, I pick up the writing magazine again. This time, I find something between the lines that gives me hope for my memoir.

When I return to my cave in the house, a quick examination in the mirror shows I still look like crap, but when I return to the blue-white screen, my memoir looks considerably better than I do. Maybe there is hope after all.

Copyright @ 2016 | All rights reserved.