As part of the Sensing Memory summer programme, writer Allison K. Williams held a two-part workshop where participants learned the basics of writing a memoir, including studying dramatic structure, considerate truth-telling, and narrative power. In this piece, Williams expands on the difference between memoir and autobiography and how to begin your book.
Writers experienced in fiction or poetry may feel their heart turning to memoir, to tell their own story. Yet memoir as a form feels inherently rule-bound, perhaps more than it actually is. In truth, the only “rule” for memoir is that memoirists by definition reflect the truth—or at least their understanding of the truth.
Memoir is not autobiography. Rather, it exists in the liminal space between story and complete accuracy. Memoirists must navigate a limited course, selecting the part of their personal journey that has been most meaningful or resulted in the greatest shift in their worldview. An autobiography is a history, showing the subject’s timeline in the world. A memoir focuses instead on the moment of change and the events leading to that moment.
An authentic memoir contains the truth as the author sees it. This is not to be confused with “facts” as defined by some outside observer; within memoir, the author’s point of view necessarily colours the depiction of events. Where the memoirist must strive for authenticity is in recognizing their own coloration of the facts toward their own self-interest. By setting down events and one’s own reactions as truthfully as possible, the author allows the reader to make their own judgments about the people on the page.
Authenticity also encompasses an openness to being subject to judgment oneself. I am deeply suspicious of memoir in which the author is unabashedly the hero of their own journey. While we of course want the reader to enjoy spending time with the narrator on the page, self-heroes of pure goodness are unfortunately boring to read, on top of being hard to believe.
For those tackling a first memoir—or even toying with the idea, it can be useful to start small. Personal essays of 750-1500 words are eminently publishable in both literary and mass-media venues. Magazines such as Brevity, which specializes in flash nonfiction, and Narratively, which showcases longer work, are excellent sources for inspiration. Reading through their online pages, you may find yourself identifying with some of the stories within, and perhaps thinking of incidents in your own life worth setting down.
As you write, focus on the moment of change. The reader need not appreciate your entire childhood to understand a pivotal moment of early adulthood. Give only the details required to bring the reader into the immediate incident. Concentrate on making abstractions into vivid reality. For example, “poverty” might be shown as hunting under the sofa cushions for change to buy dinner ingredients. “Motherly love” might manifest as a carefully-hemmed skirt for the first day of school. The more you can share specific details, rather than descriptions of concepts, the more closely the reader can identify with the narrator.
It’s also important to give depth of character to those beyond the narrator. Particularly if your story is one of opposition, make sure to investigate in your own mind why those on the other side behaved as they did, and what motivation serves them in their own concept of the world. Let the reader judge others and yourself by virtue of the actions each character takes, rather than the author dictating “good guys” and “bad guys.” This also helps the writer step carefully around family feelings and avoid insulting friends. When the focus is their actions rather than your judgment, it’s easier to treat them kindly in your pages.
Finally, writing a book can be difficult, lonely work, and often takes longer than we expect. Setting a writing routine is valuable, and need not be hours at a stretch. Considering working with fellow writers at a café for companionship, or hiring a professional writing coach to improve your craft, or an editor to shape a messy manuscript.
Sharing one’s experience through memoir can be a valuable personal growth experience as well as an opportunity to publish. However you begin, go thoughtfully, and enjoy the process. Sometimes, writing the book is itself enough.
Suggested writing-craft books for memoirists:
Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
The Story Cure: A Book Doctor's Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir, Dinty W. Moore
Allison K. Williams is a writer, editor, speaker and writing coach based in Dubai. She’s the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines and Social Media Editor for Brevity.