History is My-story

No one’s life is boring if they are continual learners. Life is a discovery. There’s gold in them thar personal histories!

Memoirs are not just for celebrities. While I admit it takes a gift to find the excitement in your personal history, some people have stories that just scream to be written down. But memoirs have a difficult structure to them. First, because there is no structure, and second because there is so much ground to be covered. How do you keep the story going from childhood to whatever you are now?

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No, no, no, I said write ABOUT yourself, not ON yourself!

When Michael J. Fox writes a memoir, it’s pretty easy. We know who celebrities are and expect them to reveal secrets of their past we want to know.

But if you aren’t a celebrity, we have to establish that all up front. Begin with the ending, and drive in your hook.

What’s your life like now? What heights or lows are you living now?

Are you a police officer or corrections officer? What kind of immediate interaction can you show me that sums you up now, which is in contrast to who you were then? Were you a cheerleader or drug addict? Did you have it all together, or falling apart, or did everyone think you had it together when you didn’t at all?

A memoir is usually written first-person, which allows your present self, the narrator, a degree of introspection. You can establish the now, pop back to the beginning, and either tell the story from there or jump around in your timeline. The only rule is tell a great story, and stick somewhat to the truth.

Just somewhat?  Yes. Strive for verisimilitude, an appearance of truth, but recognize the demands of story may require you to combine characters (so the reader doesn’t have too many people to keep track of), sharpen some experiences (that doesn’t mean lie, it just means shape it for story), leave out some experiences (not everything matters), and change settings and names (to protect the innocent and guilty alike, and prevent you from getting sued for libel).

Spend a lot of time in research, and by that, I mean researching yourself. Define:

  • In startling detail, exactly what your journey was. That’s the spine of your story. You should be able to sum it up with a sentence.
  • Write a list of events that mark the twists and turns of the journey. If it isn’t on that path, don’t include it.
  • Determine when and what the epiphanies were; the events that spurred you forward on your journey.
  • The points that held you back from your journey, the doubts, the pain, the fear.
  • What constitutes the climax of your journey, which brings you back to now.
  • How you will tie it up in a bow.

I recommend making a timeline, big, on a corkboard or wall. Once you have all that, begin writing.

That’s all there is to it. Well, more like a sliver of what there is, but this will get you started.

5 thoughts on “History is My-story”

  1. I’ve read several memoirs this year and I can see how those authors followed the structure you’ve outlined here. I have doubts that I will ever write a memoir, myself, but if I do, this is great information to keep in mind.

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