WHAT IS A MEMOIR? It is a piece of writing told from one area of your expertise that illustrates something you know resulting from something you did. Do you find that definition surprising? Many people do. But not only am I quite certain of this definition, I have built an entire memoir coaching career around it. Let’s see if that definition can help you get your memoir writing where you want it to be.
What is a memoir?
Memoir is not about you. Memoir is about something universal and you are its illustration. Ooh. Feel that little nudge? I am nudging you offstage and replacing you by something that others actually want to read about, think about and consider. See the difference? This is good news, folks, because when you are the illustration of an idea, and not the idea itself, you have at your fingertips far more things to write about than merely what happened to you.
How to write a memoir?
While I’ve covered this in a recent post about what I call the three-legged stool of memoir, I’m going to go a bit deeper here and fulfill my recent promise to talk solely about structure. To do so, I’m going to call on a little help, and ask a former student and private client whose book was just published, to help me get you some understanding of what goes into a memoir.
What memoir is not
Memoir is not one big book that begins with your great-great grandfather and ends with what you had to lunch yesterday. No, it’s not. And it should not be that, because that book lacks many things, not the least of which is a structure.
So what does a book structure do for memoir? Everything. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s ask someone who just spent several years writing hers, succeeded, and recently published her work. Let’s ask Miriam Russell, who took on the topic of her sudden widow-hood for her new memoir, Suddenly Single: A Life After Death.
When I asked her about the value of learning the need for structure, she wrote me this:
“I didn’t set out to write a book, but I enjoyed telling stories to my married friends. However, writing these wacky experiences in memoir classes was a huge challenge because I teach academic writing, a style which didn’t suit the stories I wanted to tell. I used editors to help me put it together, and struggled to take out the academic verbiage along with a myriad of exclamation points.
However entertaining these stories, they weren’t enough for a book. There had to be an arc. Memoirs are successful when they depict a problem, something to be overcome, a situation that needs to be dealt with or just something desperately wanted. It can’t be one dumb wacky thing after another. It had to mean something more.”
And there you have it: “It can’t be one dumb wacky thing after another.” I love that. I love its grace and humor, sense of self and utter acceptance of what, left to our own devices, we might instead write in the name of memoir. In a word: Don’t. At least not if you want to publish a book that anyone else might like to read.
Memoir is not a list of the wacky — or non-wacky — things you did. That list lacks several things — depth, breadth, insight, to name a few — but also structure.
How to Structure a Book
Go back to that first paragraph of this post and reread it. Specifically re-read that second line, reminding yourself that memoir is about something you know resulting from something you did. It is in there that the key to your structure can be found.
Perhaps you recently experienced grief. What did you learn? Write it down. This is an area of expertise, meaning that you undoubtedly know more than several things. Write them all down. Just make a list of what you know. Maybe your finally adopted a lifestyle that permits daily meditation. What did you learn? Write it down. Maybe your daughter went off to graduate school and left her dog with you (against your will). What do you now know about life with a dog? Did you take up gardening, recover from cancer, caretake a spouse or parent with Alzheimer’s disease?
What do you know now that you did not know at the beginning of the experience? Make a list. Now read that list. See how this is not at all a list of the dumb wacky things, one after another? Instead, this list begins to reveal your evolution from someone who did not know something to someone who did.
Why does this matter? Because it is the heart of why we write memoir: To inform and share, not merely tell the world what we did in our lives. What readers want to know is what we did with it.
So, today’s Writing Lesson is this:
Memoir is not about what you did.
Memoir is about what you did with it.
Think about that and I’ll be back soon with more.
And here, as a little gift, is a small excerpt from Miriam Russell’s new book, Suddenly Single. Celebrate with her as she enjoys her recent publication.
Garden Party Encounter, an excerpt
By Miriam Russell
“You must meet Calvin,” my friend Andrea announced. “Oh yes! She must meet him,” echoed another.
“He’s grieving so much for his wife and wants to meet someone. He’s quite well off, and drives a white Mercedes. An interesting person too.”
The opportunity came one beautiful spring day at a garden tour with my mother; who came to visit her newly widowed daughter. My father had died two years before, and now I was joining her as a new widow, age 56. At 78, mother was old enough to expect to be a widow, but I felt too young to be one. What is this new role? I hadn’t paid dues in this club, yet I was a member. I was confused. Where does a widow put her emotions?
As we walked away from a wine and cheese reception at the garden club, I noticed a dapper-looking fellow hurrying after us. He wore a well-tailored light blue suit complementing his head full of snow-white hair.
“Hello, I’m Calvin!” he proffered. “I understand you lost your husband. How long ago?”
“It’s been six years for me. It doesn’t get any better!”
Ignoring the portent of his observation, I replied,
“My mother and I are on our way to finish the garden tour.”
“Oh, are you going to the small garden on the next street? I’ll see you there.”
He arrived shortly after us and detained me by the delphiniums. His deluxe white Mercedes purred in the driveway behind him.
“Would you like to go to dinner with me after this?”
“Well, I’ll have to ask my mother!” I said, reverting to about thirteen.
“Bring her along,” he said.
Guiding my mother into another corner of the garden, I told her, “Listen, this guy just asked me to dinner and I don’t want to go. I’m going to tell him you don’t want me to go.”
Mom and I laughed all the way home at how I brushed him off. She clearly picked up on my amusement at using her as an excuse to get away from him. How thoughtless of him to tell me it wasn’t “going to get any better!” It felt good to have a giggle about it with my usually taciturn mother.
Later that evening, he found my number in the phonebook and called. First, he asked me about my husband. “What did he do?” Then, “Do you have children?
How old are they? What do they do?”
Soon it felt like an interview, but I bristled as he proceeded at length to describe his wonderful marriage.
“It was the best marriage anyone could have. And she was the best wife any man could ask for. We never argued about anything.”
As the litany of praise for his late wife enlarged, I felt a certain rage building inside me and reached for a way to end this conversation.
“Listen, I simply can’t deal with your issues now. I’m not able. Thank you for calling. Goodbye.”
I flew into the other room where Mom was sitting in front of the television. She willingly became a silent sounding board for my rage and frustration:
“Imagine! It seemed like I was being interviewed, asking me about my family, Mom. He asked how long we were married and about our children. Plus, he asked me where I went to school, but it was all a prelude to letting me know how perfect his marriage was.”
You and I know there is no such thing. He’s just deluding himself so he can brag to unsuspecting widows.
What kind of reaction was he expecting?”
Mother sat still, continuing her silent witness to my crackle, as my voice became louder and more frantic.
I loved her for not changing the subject this time. Uncharacteristically, she let it be all about me.
I rose in a fury, set off by this man’s story. It was clear
I was intensely, solidly deep into the anger phase of grief
—one grieving widow who didn’t want to hear more about this man’s perfect, albeit, deceased wife. Furthermore, I didn’t want to be interviewed for the vacancy. Mother watched me in uncertain silence as I stormed toward the door.
“I’m not that desperate to have to listen to him or have anything to do with him, even though he does drive a white Mercedes.”
My black Thunderbird waited for me in the garage.
“I have to go out. I’m taking the car.”
I drove into the black night until my fury abated, returning to the comfort of my own home, my mother’s company and the memory of my own fine imperfect marriage.
Cringe value: 6 out of 10
HOW TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Each installment takes on one short topic addressing how to write memoir.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
Love the author featured above? Did you learn something in the how-to? Then you’ve got to read the book. And you can. I am giving away one copy, and all you have to do to win is leave a comment below about something you learned from the writing lesson or the excerpt. I’ll draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight Monday, January 15, 2018. Unfortunately, only readers within the US domestic postal service can receive books.