- Before you begin to write a memoir you need to understand that it’s you are not writing an account of your whole life. A memoir only deals with selected moments from your life united by a common theme. As William Zinsser says in On Writing Well, “To write a good memoir you must become the editor of your own life, imposing on an untidy sprawl of half-remembered events a narrow shape and an organsing idea.”
This could be about anything: your love of football (Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby); buying a house in Spain (Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart); your relationship with your father (And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison); or spending a year in professional kitchens learning to cook (Heat by Bill Buford). And your memoir can even be about someone else (Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years with Brian Clough by Duncan Hamilton).
- Try and sum up the memoir you want to write in a sentence. This will help you identify what the major theme is. Or you might think about it as a film. What happens to the main character? How does he or she change? What is the plot? Who are the other key characters?
- Remember that you are not the story; you are simply the illustration. Your story needs to become the reader’s story. It needs to touch on things that are universal.
- Find the small moments in your life that had a big impact. It’s not always the big moments that stick in our mind. Sometimes it can be something that outwardly seems insignificant.
- Show don’t tell as much as possible. So instead of saying, “He was angry,” say, “He slammed his fist on the table.” Of course, sometimes you have to tell. Often this is when you are summarising events and covering a lot of ground.
- Use the senses when describing people or scenes. This will make them vivid.
Here’s a great example from the opening of Bernard Maclaverty’s novel, Cal. “He stood at the back gateway of the abattoir, his hands thrust into his pockets, his stomach rigid with the ache of want. Men in white coats and baseball caps whistled and shouted as they moved between the hanging carcases. He couldn’t see his father, yet he did not want to venture in. He knew the sweet warm nauseating smell of the place and he had had no breakfast. Nor had he smoked his first cigarette of the day. Smells were always so much more intense then. At intervals the crack of the humane killer echoed round the glass roof. Queuing beasts bellowed in the distance as if they knew.”
If you’d never been inside an abattoir, you have now.
- Choose particular details about characters to bring them alive. This might be the clothes they are wearing, something they do, a habit, or the way they speak.
- Build by using scenes and identify a beginning, middle and end in each scene. A scene is a story in miniature, and it mist have a purpose in your memoir. Don’t include a scene just because it happened.
- Your early drafts will probably be terrible, but there will be some gold buried in there, so don’t give up. Keep writing, keep digging.
- As Stephen King says in On Writing, “The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary.”