Inspirational memoir is one of my favourite genres. I love a good true story that gives me hope and leads me to look at life in a different way. Writing good memoir is a lot harder than it looks. With fiction, you are playing with fictional characters, whereas with memoir, you are the main character. Here are my five tips to write good memoir. This blog post was originally written as a guest post for Joanna Penn’s website, the Creative Penn, in April 2017 under the title Writing tips: six points to consider before writing memoir. Instead of copying and pasting what I wrote back then, I thought I would write it from scratch and see how much I have grown in a year.
Tip 1 – Make sure you have healed so that you can write from a strong place
Writing memoir should never be written to get even, or to put the record straight. Doing so almost immediately ruins the exercise and will put readers off. Why? Memoir is supposed to be a reflection on a certain topic that transcends your own personal story. It is supposed to be universal. Now if the underlying theme of your memoir was vengeance, maybe you could pursue that line as a philosophical exercise, but not as a personal exercise. I hope this makes senses. Memoir is a story, yours, that illustrates the hero’s journey. When my initial article was published on Joanna Penn’s website, I had just published my memoir about my father. And the theme of my memoir was that it is never too late to make peace with your father. Since then, I have been working on another memoir about what motherhood means to me. And the theme of that memoir is that motherhood turned me into a spiritual master. My memoirs were never about my father or my kids. They are about something bigger. And the bigger picture can only happen with a fair amount of distance towards the topic. In short, you need to let time heal what happened. Sometimes you need a little more. A therapist maybe. And that is why I believe that as a book coach I offer a beautiful blend of skills: coaching, healing and therapy. You might already have a therapist. Great. Do whatever it takes to heal yourself before you put your story out into the big wide world so that your vulnerability does not become overwhelming. So that you can have a bad review on your memoir and not take it personally. If it is hard for fiction authors not to take a nasty review personally, imagine what it takes for a memoir writer to get over it. Do the work so that it becomes bearable.
Tip 2 – Structure your memoir like a story
This is one of the big mistakes aspiring memoir writers make. They write it “as it is” forgetting that memoirs are stories just like any other stories. Memoirs are not biographies. Or autobiographies. They do not follow a strict time line. They follow the structure of stories. Just because you are the main character, does not mean that it changes the rules. You need a good characterisation (imagine how hard it is to do that about yourself?), a good plot and every word needs to serve the plot. That’s right. There needs to be an arc of development. And an overarching idea. I am not going to repeat myself but a memoir is about something that is going to interest your reader. Writing about motherhood is not enough. There needs to be a voice, a message behind it. And then you realise there can be twenty memoirs about motherhood because each woman’s experience of motherhood is different. Her point of view is unique and it is informed by her experience, her culture, her beliefs and much more. Isn’t that exciting? I believe that memoir writers are superheroes. That is the most difficult genre to write in, successfully. I also believe that anyone can do it with the right amount of support and help. I would not advice anyone to launch into the genre of memoir without some sort of help.
Tip 3 – Be moved by your story
Memoir is not about fact. It is about emotion. I am actually merging point 5 and 6 from my original guest post here. Memoir is not about fact. It is OK to change small details to serve your story. For example, in my memoir about my father, I relocated my parents in the heart of Paris where they had lived when I was younger. They had moved to the outskirts of Paris in their later years but I felt it would add tremendously to have the book take place in the Latin Quarter. It was not a complete lie. They had lived there, as I had, in my childhood. And by adapting slightly the facts to my story, I brought a whole new dimension to it. It took the reader around favourite areas of my childhood that also happened to be fairly popular tourist spots. I also decided to merge two friends into one. I first contacted my friends and explained to them why as they might have come back to me and said “I never said this”. I felt that my main character (yes, that was me) needed to have two main friends who supported her through her quest to connect to her father. Not three or four as was the case in real life. And this ties into the rules of story telling. You need a strong main character and two main secondary characters. Too many characters can lead to confusion. I also wrote my memoir without holding back on my emotions. I did not sugar coat what it feels like to see your father die. I did not sugar coat the anger I felt towards one of my cousins. That is what being authentic is. What does it feel like when you grieve? How do people act when they are grieving? Is death real?
Tip 4 – Work on your fear of visbiility
Every author needs to work on their fear of visibility before they publish their books, whether they self publish or go for a traditional publisher. It needs to start now though, so that you get ready and move through the layers that need to be peeled to get to the point of being OK with being visible. Start small. Talk to people you know about your memoir. Possibly not to the people in your book, unless you are sure that they are going to be OK with you writing it. If you talk about your sister who shunned you after you decided not to take on the family business as your parents expected you to do so, then maybe it is not a good idea to talk to your sister just yet. It goes further. Make sure you don’t share what you are not comfortable sharing. If you had an addiction to drugs in your youth and are now married with kids, think about why you feel the need to write about that period in your life. Are you comfortable doing it? If so, go ahead. If not, maybe you could write it as a novel. Your experience with drugs will enable you to write fiction that is very convincing. You will reach the same objective through a different mean. Say for example the premise of your book is that drug addicts actually numb childhood abuse or trauma, you can achieve that just as effectively by writing a novel about it. Is the genre necessary to your cause?
Tip 5 – Get legal advice
If you go with a traditional publisher, they will automatically run your book past their lawyers. They have to. If you decide to go the indie route (self publishing), make sure that you have had the advice of a lawyer on the possible risks of you publishing your memoir. As I have a legal background, I did my own research and came up with a disclaimer at the beginning of my memoir that felt right and that explained that my memoir was my own personal point of view on events that led to my father’s death and that I was very well aware that my mother, brother or sister might see things very differently. As far as I know, they did not have visitations from him before he died, so I am pretty sure that disclaimer was needed. Everyone’s experience is different, especially in families. I don’t suppose (although don’t quote me on this) family members would be so inclined to sue you in court, but if you talk about an ex employer and the facts you share (even disguised) are enough to identify your ex boss, for example, it could get more nasty. Better safe than sorry. Especially with memoir. But this is also why, in doubt, fiction is a great alternative.
So these were my five tips on writing good memoir. I hope you enjoyed my blog. Feel free to leave a comment or a question below.
To your writing,
(c) Ange de Lumiere 2018