Last night during the Craft of Storytelling class I am teaching, the subject of writing memoirs came up. I spoke a little about my experience regarding the memoir about my thirty-year fandom of the pop band Duran Duran, and it inspired me to share more about both the experience as well as tips for writing a memoir.
1. The same rule applies to writing a memoir as to writing a novel: Tell a good story. And use the same elements to do so: sensory description, engaging “characters,” dialogue, conflict, and the moment(s) of revelation.
2. Know your audience. For me, this is a more conscious (and constant) task when writing nonfiction. Whereas in a novel the bond occurs between readers and characters, in memoir the bond is between readers and the writer. Thus, as the memoirist you must connect with readers and know something specific about them at the outset.
The obvious audience for Friends of Mine was Duran Duran fans, but I also wanted to attract readers who felt equal adoration for their favorite band or artist, be it The Beatles or Beyoncé, and perhaps even recruit new Duran Duran fans. I knew my audience would relate to certain aspects of my story—collecting posters and watching music videos during the 80s, for example—but I was less prepared for the connection to the more personal aspects. I continue to receive beautiful letters from people who were touched by the book.
3. A memoir is almost never about what you think it’s going to be about. Memoir and autobiography overlap in that you’re writing about your life. However, a memoir focuses on specific events rather than a chronology. You can write about one particular event, or you can write about several throughout your life. But you’ll find patterns and threads that connect each event. It could be a theme, a lesson learned, a person, or all of the above.
My original plan was to write about being a Duran Duran fan in the 1980s. The more I wrote, however, the more I realized the memoir was about so much more than my “relationship” with the band. It was also about long-term relationships with family, friends, music, and writing, and the roles they played in how and why I loved the band. Everything connected to one thread: Duran Duran’s role in my life.
4. Writing a memoir is like undressing in front of an audience, and pulling other people’s pants down. I love this popular Anne Lamott quote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But doing that sometimes comes at a cost. The stories I told involved other people—some were favorable, and others were not. Some were downright painful. I had to be considerate of them, especially my family and close friends who were being featured. But I also had to serve the truth of the story. I couldn’t sacrifice that in attempt to spare someone’s feelings.
I changed several names and asked others for permission to use their real names. I sent my family and close friends the manuscript before I published it. Although I didn’t guarantee I would remove something they objected to, I promised to listen to and consider their concerns.
If you’re casting someone in a bad light just to be vindictive, or telling a story simply for shock value, then I think you need to re-evaluate your priorities and consider your integrity.
And once it’s out there, it’s out there. If you’re revealing something personal, then you must accept the consequences. Some may thank you for it. Some may judge you. Others may even stop speaking to you.
5. There’s a fine line between “filling in the details” and outright making things up. Memories become foggy over time. I want to tell the truth about the event or experience with as much detail and clarity as possible, but what if some of the details are foggy?
Taking creative license with something like clothing is OK. For example, if I’m writing about falling off my bicycle when I was eight years old, I might have described my outfit as a Shaun Cassidy T-shirt and hand-me-down jeans, because that was typical of my wardrobe. However, if I made up a detail such as going to the hospital following the bicycle fall when in reality I had the wind knocked out of me, then my memoir loses authenticity and my credibility as a writer suffers. Above all, the account needs to be authentic.
6. Photos amplify and enhance the story. I read several memoirs before writing my own and found that the photographs accompanying the text added an emotional layer to the reading experience. I’ve never needed this for fiction. When written well, a novel invites you into its world and you’re able to fully immerse yourself using your imagination. But perhaps because a memoir involves real people, seeing photographs from the time being written about strengthens the bond between writer and reader.
Most of my success as a novelist comes from e-book sales. However, I promote the print version more than the e-book version of Friends of Mine because the paperback contains many more photographs than the e-book (due to digital file size constraints). I also love the book’s cover design—the doodles are all from my actual junior high school notebook—and physically holding that portable piece of art.
7. Be prepared to live with your subject for a long time. A memoir might not always be about you. It might be about someone close to you, like a grandparent or a teacher. Regardless, your subject will likely conjure many memories and emotions. For however long your memoir takes to write, revise, edit, and publish, your subject, people, and feelings will be with you. Will you be able to handle that?
I was afraid I’d be sick of Duran Duran after spending a year working on Friends of Mine. The opposite happened: I fell in love all over again, and I made some wonderful new friends as a result.
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I'm an author of commercial women's fiction and a writing instructor. My claim to fame: I can say the alphabet backwards.