According to the dictionary, “memoir” is a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources. Not very helpful, is it? It sounds an awful lot like a documentary, the old fashioned kind composed of a chronologicallist of events. Modern memoir is a drama, a compelling story with a narrative arc. Isn’t that why you want to write it? Something exciting happened? When planning your memoir, focus on that.
Think of your life as a house. A memoir shines a light through one of the windows. Inside that window is a room with a great story, whether mysterious, sexy or heartbreaking. The rest of the house remains dark.
This explains why popular memoirists can write more than one book. Mary Karr could have dropped the mic – I mean flashlight – with her brilliant Liar’s Club. But then she wrote Cherry and followed up with Lit. Sure, there was light spilling into the hallway, but those were separate rooms. Samantha Dunn’s A Careless Life is a classic, and has no bearing on her next one, Faith in Carlos Gomez. Even Kathryn Harrison closed the window on her controversial Kiss, only to shine light into the next room for Seeking Rapture. And yes, I recommend all of these books.
Often memoirists write new stories covering different periods of time. But the differences are more profound than that. Memoirs are not episodic, nor are they sequels. These are close up views of life. Personal experience explores universal themes that provide the opportunity for readers to reflect on their own lives.
Memoir is more limited than autobiography, but also more creative. Like a work of fiction, the main character changes and grows. This time, of course, the main character is you. And it’s called creative nonfiction for a reason. You must edit your experience to include only events that contribute to the main story.
As a consultant, I help writers create dramatic structure in their work, whether in novel or memoir. Both are creative works that require narrative drive.
I often write personal essays as an initial approach to a particular subject. My most recent* is a splashy piece that combines personal experience with cultural perspective. Usually my essays lead to longer works of fiction, where I can explore the emotional truth while keeping my curtains closed. For my first full length project since breast cancer, however, I’m considering opening them to write a memoir. But you will never guess what it’s about. I discovered a window that is sure to surprise you.
Now excuse me while I put batteries in my flashlight.
*Read my latest essay HERE.