This post could also be called: What I Wish I Knew Before I Started Writing My Memoir. This is part one of a three-part series (previously posted on Writers in the Storm on April 14th, 2021).
As a nonfiction editor and writing coach, I often work with first-time memoir writers who have a story to tell and need help shaping it. These writer-editor relationships may last from six months to three years until what really needs to be said makes its way to the surface of a page.
Memoir writing is more than jotting down thoughts the way we do in a diary. In memoir, ideas need to be organized. Characters and themes developed. Context and sensory details added. Words, sentences, and paragraphs grammatically scrubbed and primed. Chapters need to work independently but also as a whole.
After our work together, it’s rewarding see how these clients have grown stronger as writers, how they’re now able to identify inciting incidents (yes, we use those in memoir too!), what matters, what doesn’t, and perhaps more importantly—from a business perspective—what the reader is interested in reading about versus what they think the reader is interested in.
In the end, I get to see my client’s beautiful character arc of their own writing journey.
My Question: Can you tell me three things you wish you’d had known before you started writing your memoir?
Christina: (inspirational memoir) The first book I ever attempted to write was a memoir. I assumed that it would be the easiest of all the writing styles because it was about “me.” I thought it would be super simple to pick out a few memories and write a book based off them. It ended up being extremely challenging and time-consuming because I wanted everything to be perfect on the first draft.
Every word, sentence, and paragraph needed to be perfect. I would write ten pages in a day only to come back the next day and erase or restart six of them because I thought it wasn’t good enough. I was trying to be Michelle Obama or Oprah Winfrey.
Who was I kidding? I had to get out of my own way and shift my mindset.
Then, I started noticing that for most of my writing process I held a lot back because I only wanted to show the pretty parts of my life. Because what if the pastors or people from church read it and disapproved? Or what if the mean girls from middle school saw it and made fun of me again now that we were adults?
It wasn’t until I said screw it! and wrote about all the dark parts of my past did my book finally come together. Don’t get me wrong…there were happy parts as well, but you cannot have the good without the bad. Otherwise, that’s a fairytale and not a memoir. (Christina’s first book can be found here)
It’s a memoir, not a fairytale.
Readers want to see the struggle, the mistakes, and the redemption.
When you’re truthful, the reader will support you the whole way.
Carolyn (memoir author about a 40-year friendship): I’ve learned that the telling and writing of each story has a value of its own. That writing in the voice of innocence is a necessary part of the process to practice before developing more insight as well as hindsight.
Instead of looking at each piece as crap, see more clearly how the crap is necessary and important for the flowers to bloom with the most color.
I learned that some sequences need to proceed from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4. This showed me that I was rarely clever in presenting things in a different order because it would become confusing to the reader when they came across events in a different sequence than they were expecting.
My Note: (Carolyn had a nonlinear way of telling a story or writing about events different from most writers I’ve worked with. Many times, she felt the story was clear, complete, and didn’t need additional information. However, this was because the experience was strong in her memory, but the details hadn’t been put yet on the page. For me, as a reader and her editor, I often asked her for more, for more clarifications, descriptions, and context.) (See Carolyn’s memoir here.)
Writing is rewriting. And rewriting is learning.
Ed (historical memoir):
I wish I had known how difficult it was going to be to get started. Where should my memoir begin? How much detail should I include? How revealing do I need to be to be able to tell the story well and yet feel comfortable at the same time? The feedback I received during the developmental editing stage really helped me focus on what I needed to do and include.
Also, when you told me “you know, you don’t have to write your memoir,” that removed the stress of thinking I had to do it (even if it was something I had chosen to do).
After accepting the notion that I didn’t have to write my memoir it became a more enjoyable project because I realized it was something I wanted to do even if I never finished it. But after three long years, I did, and I love how it turned out. (Ed’s memoir is here.)
You don’t have to write your memoir. You’re choosing to write it instead.
Shelli (inspirational memoir):
I wish had understood the writing process better. And that I would have taken the time to learn how to set up the basics of page formatting right from the start. I shouldn’t have worried so much about the technical aspect of my writing at the beginning (i.e., grammar, spelling, punctuation) and instead focused more on just getting all my thoughts down.
I would have also stayed away from setting deadlines for myself in the first draft since I didn’t know how long things take to get done, and learning how to do things adds to that time (i.e., getting permissions to use quotes, fact-checking, reader feedback).
Other people’s ideas of setting deadlines were not helpful at that first draft stage. Setting goals, yes, but deadlines, no. (Shelli’s book will be published Summer of 2021.)
Set achievable goals, not deadlines.
5 Mindsets of a Successful Memoir
Knowing we want to write a memoir is never enough. We need a lot more than intention. It pays to research memoir types, structures, and what the writing process might be like for you. Our chances of writing a successful memoir, and most of all, our chances of enjoying the process of writing our memoirs, seem to increase when:
We recognize writing our memoir is a choice, not an obligation.
We set reasonable writing goals for ourselves.
We are willing to write about our successes just as much as about our failures.
We know a first draft is exactly that: A first draft (getting our word onto the page.)
We recognize we will be revising, rewriting, and rewriting again to fine-tune our story.
In Part II of Memoir Writing 101, we will discuss the positive things and surprises that came out of their projects, so don't miss the next post!
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Linda Ruggeri is a full-service editor and project manager based out of Los Angeles. She coauthored the historical memoir Stepping Into Rural Wisconsin: Grandpa Charly’s Life Vignettes from Prussia to the Midwest. Her new book Networking for Editors will be released this fall.
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