Writing in the Memoir Style — Advice
I have said that I have never felt as though I had the requisite talent for teaching memoir as a genre, because frankly it is as complicated, in that same simple manner, as haiku or sonnets. There are rules, but that doesn’t mean there is a formula. But here I will proffer a couple of basics to use as a roughly drawn roadmap.
Differing from a first person narrative wherein your speaker is a participating observant narrator, but neither the protagonist nor the antagonist; a memoir is a brutally honest introspection of a real incident or period in your life that has since passed into history and the spiritual growth that it inspired has taken root in your personage; it is both the experience and its result.
A difference should be noted here also, that a memoir is not a “journal.” The memoir has happened far enough in the past that the lesson(s) of the consequences has been learned and assimilated (by you and all relevant parties). A journal is a self-exploration in search of answers. Journaling is a great exercise, but don’t confuse it with this.
The consequential outcome of your experience is the main emphasis of this kind of writing. Choose your subject carefully so that your reader will feel fulfilled / educated / empowered / moved by your experience. What happened to you is unique, “What’s in it for me?”
Honesty, both in the situation and the outcome is foremost, but readability becomes an issue. You need to take something that happened to you, or a period of your life that has had some effect (good or bad) on you or those around you, be honest about what happened and what those enriching effects were on you and everyone else. Be hypercritical of the situation, including yourself. If you like sugar-coating, go buy some candy, but leave it out of your story. Be prurient if the situation requires, be gross if it was gross, be profane (literal meaning) if that was part of the event, don’t tone anything down for the sake of modesty or reputation, it will detract from the purpose of the remembrance.
THEN, AFTER YOU’VE BLED OUT, treat it like all of your other writings, deal with structure, form, syntax, word choice, idiom and flow. Memoirs should be written with the same serious attention as any fiction (or poetry) work.
As writers, we all like eyes on our work, but in this style of writing be careful of how many I’s there are. Write first, and then concentrate on saving your poor reader’s eyes by eliminating as many I’s as you can and still tell the story.
And finally, you may take all of the above, add some literary license, some fictionalized characters and a few imagined scenarios, and expand “your life” into a much bigger picture. Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird, is both memoir and novel — there are plenty of examples of memoir styling in fictionalized writings, and often they are among the most moving and inspirational, but they start as a memoir.
It is true that there is a piece of a writer’s life in everything written; sometimes it is the motivation for the whole story, sometimes the basis for a character, or maybe it lies in the story within the story, but somewhere in there is the author’s DNA. In Memoir Styled Fiction, the writer’s life is more than a few helixes on a gene; it is the entire fetus, perhaps even the crying baby, or maybe a whole adult body. But a memoir is conceived, gestated, and nurtured in the truth of the writer’s experience. By practicing this style, you become both a creator and a parent.
Unfortunately, this is where my proffered map ends, the roads continue, but they are uncharted; where you as a parent go with your progeny is up to you.