Memoir Writing: Let’s be Honest

Something I RememberA couple weeks ago took part in a panel discussion about memoir writing. A big concern of the audience had to do with being honest and naming names. I think the answers we gave were adequate, but I’ve been thinking about them off and on ever since.

First be as honest as you can even if what you write makes you cringe either because of what you did, said, or thought or because of something someone else did or said. Don’t sugarcoat it. Also don’t say things you never said or write about things you did, that you didn’t really do. That’s for fiction, not memoir.

I believe most of us have found ourselves going over the things we should have said or should have done. Hours after a confrontation we think of the clever turn of phrase we should have used rather than the one we used. In your memoir write the one you used, not the one you think you should have used. Don’t paint yourself to be better, wittier, and cleverer than you actually are. There’s a good chance your reader will recognize your fabrication and will think you’re actually a terrific bore or a twit.

The beauty of a memoir is in its humanity showing the truth for what it is or was in a very down to earth way.

As for using the names of the people involved in your memoir, there are times when using the actual name will not be a concern and there are other times when it might be better if you did not use their real name. I have a simple rule that I use: If the person is dead and most of what I have to say about him/her is good, I don’t worry about it, otherwise I use a fictitious name. If the person is alive I ask them if it’s okay for me to name them. If they say no or if I don’t ask their permission, I use a fictitious name. The real name of the person is rarely as important as the story I want to tell. Fictitious names are indicated with an asterisk in this way: * (name changed to protect).

In her post entitled Memoir: Do I Use Their Real Names?, Nomi Isak offers these suggestions:

  1.  Write your first draft exactly as it happened, using all real names and places.You (like most writers) already battle with enough resistance and procrastination when trying to write; don’t make it worse by censoring yourself.  The best way to write a first draft is to remove all censorship and pour it out onto the page.  Save the editing and decision making for a later draft.

  2.  Wait until you’re ready to sit down to your second draft (or third or fourth) to decide what you’re going to do about the name issue.After completing the first draft or two, you might have more clarity on the pros and cons of using real names.

  3.  Before publishing your memoir, get feedback from others and, if necessary, consult an attorney.  We’re often far too close to our own writing (and our own story) to see it clearly.  Hire an editor or enlist a trusted friend (trusted to be kind, but also to tell the truth) and ask her how she thinks you’ve portrayed a particular character.  You might be surprised.  Perhaps you think you’ve written Uncle Saul as a complete ogre, while your editor or friend finds him endearing.  Regardless of how you have portrayed the people in your memoir, if you use real names, or if the characters are otherwise recognizable, you may need to get signed permissions.

If Uncle Saul really does come off as a complete putz, you probably will want to change his name, and you may even need to alter recognizable traits or story elements.  This is where an attorney well-versed in publishing could come in handy.  If you have the good fortune to have sold your book to a publishing house, their legal department will take care of that part, vetting the manuscript before it goes to press.

Even if you paint a character in a glowing light, it’s not a bad idea to have a conversation with him before publication, and be willing to show him the scenes in which he appears.

Whatever feedback or advice you get, in the end you’re the one who has to live with the decision and its consequences.  Remember, too, that you have the option to use some real names and some pseudonyms.  You can explain that choice in a disclaimer at the beginning of your book.  The disclaimer language goes something like this:

The stories in this book reflect the author’s recollection of events.  Some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of those depicted.  Dialogue has been re-created from memory.

Also, you might want to click this link to some books about memoir writing.

Memoir Monday: More Techniques

Five Memoir ConcernsEvery Monday I’ll be adding a memoir related post to this blog.

Last week I began by telling some of what I’ve learned about writing the memoir or personal essay and left you with some techniques to help you choose a story from your life to write about. My goal is to eventually write a book length memoir. It seems to me that many people who write such a memoir have a pretty good idea of the story they want to tell. I’m not one of those people. However, I know I have many good stories to tell so I’ve been learning both about writing a book length memoir as well as short personal essays.

Hopefully, you’ve picked out (or you soon will choose) a bit of your life, a little story to tell and maybe you’ve written the first draft, maybe you’re not sure where to begin.
First don’t try to tell all the backstory, start at the place you would start telling the story if you just walked into the office, or just sat down for coffee with your best friend, or if you were on the sofa with one of your children.

You do not need to tell about everything that caused you to be wherever you were or everything that happened to you earlier that day or everything that happened in your life before the moment or event or thing happened that you’re writing about.

Here are some usual writing guidelines that are not necessary for memoirists to follow.

Forget about grammar. You don’t want to forget about it entirely, but right now don’t worry about whether you should be using a comma or period or semi colon. Don’t worry about punctuation, capitalization, parts of speech, or if you’ve used the same word or words too often. Write everything as it comes to mind. Then in a later draft you can edit it or find or hire someone to help edit it. You’ve got a story to tell, so tell it.

If something bad has happened, if you’ve made a mistake, misjudged something, said or done something you regret, don’t gloss over it. Readers, no matter who they are, will find your struggles and failures, the obstacles you’ve overcome much more interesting and will appreciate you and what you’ve written more because they will more easily relate to something that in some way or another has happened to them.

Try to address these five concerns or questions:

  1. What do I remember? This may seem obvious, but you don’t want to digress, stick to this memory. If you’re going to digress, then perhaps there’s a different memory you want to write about.
  2. What do I see? As you stand in your memory, take a look around. Who or what do you see? Is it a sunny or rainy day? Do you hear or smell anything?
  3. What do I think about this or what am I thinking?
  4. What am I feeling? In a sense this is the most important concern of all. Everything else in your memory ties into this, because this is usually where the story is.
  5. What else is important? Is there a detail that isn’t a part of the memory, but is important to understanding it?

As you’re writing try to keep these five things in mind. When you rewrite watch for places where one of those five questions comes into play.
Next Monday I’ve got some more techniques I’ve found useful in writing some of my memoir essays that I’ll tell you about.

Also, I’ve added a store where I’ve collected links to some of the better books I’ve found about Memoir writing. The link to it is at the top of the page and here, too.

Memoir Monday: Writing a Memoir Essay

autobiography or memoirMemoir writing takes guts. It’s revealing and personal – sometimes even painful to put on the page. Some people know exactly what they want to write about when they start. Most of us live such interesting lives that we often think to ourselves, Should I write a memoir? Memoir writing can be a cathartic way to tell your story—whether it’s funny, fascinating or just heart-wrenching. All over the Internet you can find examples of memoirs, memoir essays, even six-word memoirs (that’s a challenge). But before focusing too much on examples of a memoir, I’d like to start with the memoir essay or personal essay, a sort of personal short story.

Writing the first draft of a memoir essay is actually rather easy. You do it just about every day, sometimes a number of times in a day. You get to work and the first thing you say is: “I came this close to an accident this morning!” Then you tell all about the harrowing experience you had. Or maybe you meet a friend at the grocery story. You’re looking at the tomatoes and start telling your friend about the delicious tomato stew you made for the in-laws a couple weeks ago. Or maybe the in-laws are visiting and you tell them about the cute thing the two year old did while playing with the neighbor’s kids.

the truth is there is no such thing as a dull person, a dull life

Those are all memoir essays. You could write the story and you would have a suitable memoir story, maybe not an essay that would be publishable, maybe not a story many people would want to read, but it would be a start. It might not even be the best memoir essay you have available. We all have hundreds, thousands of stories. Maybe you think your stories are boring, but the truth is there is no such thing as a dull person, a dull life. Any dullness resides in the telling of the story, not in the person. Your journey has been much different than mine, but there are many aspects of your journey that have been similar, that I can relate to. That’s what I want to hear, a different story that I can connect with.

Here are a few techniques to get your started:

Make a list.

The easiest place to start is with the stories you’ve told in the past. The funny stories, the sad stories, the poignant stories. Get a pad of paper or open your word processing program and start jotting down any random memories that come to mind. Don’t write the whole story, just a headline or a sentence or two to describe it. Each memory is likely to trigger another memory. Don’t worry about whether anyone would want to hear about it or not. Don’ worry about whether telling it will embarrass anyone. Right now you’re the only one who is going to see this list. You should have at least 50. You might want to stop when you get to 50. Or you might want to continue. It doesn’t matter, because there will be one or two or maybe a few of these memories you’ll want to write about. At least one of your memories is going to be jumping off that page.

Write a few paragraphs as if you’re telling the memory to your spouse or a good friend or to your kids. Once you start writing it you won’t be able to stop. There’s a good chance you’ll find, like I did, that it’s so much fun, you’ll want to write more than one.

Use Photographs.

If you’ve got some old photo albums or boxes of photos open it up and start telling the stories behind or the stories that go with the pictures.

Use Maps

And another technique: open Google or Bing maps or Mapquest. Find the towns or neighborhoods that have meaning for you (where you were born, grew up, went to school, your first apartment, house, etc.) and tell the stories that go along with the various streets, locations, buildings, etc.

That’s it for now. Next we’ll talk about ways to turn that first draft into something better. Our goal is to have a finished product that at the least can be a nice gift for someone. I have a friend who a few years ago gave every member of her family a parchment scroll with a favorite memory, a moment, a story they shared.

Of course we’d like to go the next step and have something publishable.