Writing your memoir is a bit like detective work. You have to sleuth your way through memories, discarding some, rearranging others and investigating further to gain meaning for your story and for your life.
This blog will explore:
1) How memory plays a part in writing your memoir and the question “whose version of the truth is correct?”
2) How to access your memories and uncover stories or different perspectives about yourself
3) Uncovering what you are choosing to forget and whether that belongs in your story
4) How to weave reflection and hindsight into your memoir
My Writing Tips Tuesday this week touches on memory in memoir and I share some personal stories of how my memories affected the writing of my family story.
Writing your life story can be a daunting prospect for you if you are writing about difficult or challenging people or situations.
The first thing to do is to get real with yourself.
Ask yourself a few hard questions such as WHY am I writing this and am I open to what might unfold for me along the way.
My short 30-page inspirational e-book, How to Write Your Life Story WITHOUT fear could be a useful start for you. It asks a number of questions for you to consider, and I highly recommend you take some time to answer them or at least really think about them. They will help you get more clarity around your intentions and reasons for writing your story.This helps to determine what to include and what to leave out.
Memory and Truth
Your memory and ego have a tumultuous relationship. They’re supposed to be there to protect each other but sometimes can play tricks or deceive in order for self-preservation. A selective memory may be necessary for your sanity but not helpful when you are facing the blank screen and need to piece together your life story in a coherent form.
The way you write your story depends on the type of life story you are writing. Life Story is an umbrella term of life for a variety of forms of writing about a life. It includes Biography, autobiography, memoir, journal writing, personal essays, and creative non-fiction.
Biography is writing about another life
Autobiography is writing about your life and usually in chronological order from birth to the present time
Memoir is focusing on one aspect of your life and offering observation and reflection on topics or the theme
Creative non-fiction is using narrative elements such as plot, characterisation and dialogue to tell a factual story
Regardless of what type of life story you are writing you want to be honest and get the facts to resemble the “truth” as much as you can. You may not remember conversations word for word and in this case, it’s OK to make up the dialogue if it’s in line with what you are trying to convey.
There is much debate about this in the literary field and there have been instances of authors fabricating a lot more than a bit of dialogue here or there.
If you’ve been on the planet for some time and can’t remember specific details, that’s OK. Try to be as honest as you can in your recollections and let the reader know if you can’t remember everything.
For an autobiography, you can go to great lengths as I have for my family story by checking birth certificates, newspaper articles, court documents and by interviewing people for their versions of the “truth”. This all does take time and a lot of effort but it was important for me and for the story I am telling because the whole book is about standing up for the truth. While I listened to other people’s truths, I had to decide what I thought was the truth for me and for my family and write the story accordingly.
A memoir is defined as an exploration of one aspect of your life. For example, it could focus on the loss of a loved one or a travel journey. It could be a physical outer journey or an internal journey which takes the reader through your process of understanding and growth.
I believe a memoir can be more subjective and open to interpretation than a factual account of names and dates. You have more room to be opinionated and show “the world according to your views” when exploring your theme or aspect. The reader almost has an expectation that this is your opinion, worldview and don’t expect as many factual details in chronological order. What they want is the experience, the journey and how it makes them feel. It may create empathy for some or provoke others.
You can say in your book, “Some people believed that…but for me, this is how it was…”
“There it was, in black and white but that’s not how I remember …at all.”
Your story is your interpretation of what happened and the awareness you bring to what happened. You can fact check certain things or verify facts if you need or want to but ultimately – it’s your story – write what you need to, write what’s in your heart and write the truth according to you.
There are legal ramifications writing about other people (which we’ll go into in another blog and video) but for now, the question of truth in memory is about honouring who you are, why you want to write the book and how it fits into the bigger scheme of your life and purpose.
How to Access Memories
BIG DISCLAIMER: If you want to write about difficult memories and topics. Please, please, please get the support you need beforehand.
Writing your memoir may be a way to heal old wounds but accessing these memories could be painful.
My family story was difficult to write. There were many days I cried and just couldn’t do anything. I needed help. I sought out psychologists and various healers to help me throughout the process of writing my book. There is no shame in it. In fact, reaching out for help has not only helped me with the emotional side of things but has brought a richness and depth to the observation I gave to my story.
1) Book in a date with yourself. Sit down and have a one on one consultation with your memory. Sit by the beach or in nature, meditate or take some time to reflect. (Read – The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron)
2) Free write what comes to mind. Don’t censor yourself. Just let it out. Get into the habit of doing this regularly. (Read – Creative Journal Writing – the art and heart of reflection by Stephanie Dowrick)
3) Keep a Memory journal for your Memoir and add to it as you remember new things. Also, journal about what comes up for you as memories surface throughout the writing process. These thoughts can be woven in as reflection later. (Read – Writing Your Life – a journey of discovery by Patti Miller)
For autobiography – write a timeline of your life and under each year what do you remember about that time.
- I remember when…
- My first memory is of…
- When I was born…
- My mother/father used to call me…
- Everyone thought I was a…
If you are writing a memoir, have you worked out the theme of your book? If not, that’s OK because throughout the process of writing your story – the theme will become apparent.
If yes, perhaps start with how that theme affects you now and then look back over your life to find connections related to that theme.
For example: If you are writing about the loss of a loved one, think about the first time you saw an animal die and how you felt. Or did you lose a loved one as a child? Write about all the experiences of loss and find connections and symbols that relate to the event in the present.
Be kind and gentle with yourself and if you need to stop, STOP. Always be mindful that writing about your life is a big thing. It’s huge for some people and you do need help along the way.
Even for those people who aren’t writing about taboo or controversial issues or events can often be surprised by what comes up. Not every memory has to be tragic or traumatic. Even funny situations can bring some awareness to your story. It’s all about being aware of what does come up and how you can weave that into your book.
Other tips to access memory include:
Find old journals, letters or emails and highlight or note what could be used for your story. Reading them will trigger memories so pay attention to how you feel when you do read them. You can use the feelings and emotions of the present to go into backstory.
Talk to your family, friends, old work colleagues to get their memories and perspectives. While this is your story sometimes they will remind you of things you may have forgotten or weren’t aware of.
Uncovering what you’ve chosen to forget
I find this aspect of memory most intriguing. What is it that we have buried or don’t want to look at. How does that fit into our story if it does at all?
Think about the gaps in your story. Do you deliberately want to avoid remembering or writing about certain things? Is it necessary to your story? Not everything that happens to you has to be included in your story (especially in a memoir). You hold the pencil, so it’s up to you what you include. Just be real with yourself and ask if you are avoiding memories and potentially healing old wounds or are you justified in letting some sleeping dogs lie?
I have a good example of when my father went to prison (fighting against corruption in council) and I thought I was a good, dutiful daughter who supported him and his fight. However, when talking to my Mum about this time, she said, “No, Leeza. You didn’t want to see your father in prison at first. I don’t know whether you were embarrassed about the whole situation or whether the gaol frightened you, but you refused to go.”
Wow, that was a shock to me. I totally forgot about that. In fact, I can’t remember it at all probably because it was such a traumatic time. It made me think about the view I had of myself and how I was presenting myself in my book.
I had to change the image of me being the “perfect daughter” and be honest in my book about first not remembering and second admitting that I had character flaws. I believe that when we write with honesty our readers can identify with us more. They might not have walked our shoes but they can empathise in some way.
No one is black and white and when we present the shades of grey, it makes us more real. And, that’s what memoir is all about. Being honest and being real.
How to weave reflection and hindsight into memoir
The most important thing is to first get your memories down.
The next thing to consider is your structure. There are no right or wrong ways of writing a life story but the important thing to consider is – how easy is it to read my story?
Autobiographies are fairly straightforward in terms of structure because they are usually chronological accounts. You can start with a present moment and frame the story, then go back in time to make it more interesting.
Memoirs can also be started in this way by focussing on the theme or aspect you are writing about and only going back to memories or events that relate to your theme. Or you can use sub-headings for different stories which all relate to your theme.
You don’t want to confuse the reader by going and back and forth and a haphazard way. It has to make some sense. Some people use dates or places at the top of the page so the reader knows where they are in the story.
Elizabeth Gilbert cleverly divided her book, Eat, Pray, Love, into 109 stories using the symbolism of the japa mala (holy beads). In her introduction, she explicitly states how she structured her book.
“The string of 108 tales is further divided into three sections about Italy, India and Indonesia – the three countries I visited during this year of self-inquiry. This division means that there are 36 tales in each section which appeals to me because I’m writing this book in my 36th year.”
(An excerpt from the Introduction to Eat, Pray, Love)
You don’t have to be as structured as Elizabeth in that book but it gives you an idea of how you can make structure interesting and weave it into your themes.
Weaving life and meaning
As you tell your story or SHOW it through narrative elements (such as dialogue, writing in scenes, plotting the events etc, you can write about what happened in the past and reflect on it in the present, but be careful not to give away the whole story in the beginning.
Good storytelling is about building up conflict and characterization (even in a memoir).
I have seen so many clients want to tell their whole story in a page at the beginning.
You need restraint and to let the story evolve.
This is what will keep the reader turning the page, even for life story.
How Can I Help You?
And this is what I love to do, help people first get their memories and ideas out. Then, depending on their needs and wants, we work on a “loose” or detailed structure so they can go away and feel confident to start writing their book.
If you’ve dreamt of writing your story but have some fears, blocks or issues around memory, what to write, is my story worthy, how can I write about other people without legal ramifications or anything to do with writing, editing or publishing your story, please reach out to me.
I understand the difficulties and the processes of writing a life story because I write them. I also have knowledge of writing techniques from completing my Masters in Creative Writing, but more than that, I am passionate about helping people write and share their stories.
If you want to take the next step, reach out and book in a free chat with me or a Book Planning Session so we can move forward.
Don’t forget to grab your free copy of Write your life story WITHOUT fear here…