Memoirs, Like the Corners of Your Mind

Whose story do you know better than your own?

If you’re like most people, you think your life is boring, like a great big rock just sitting there. Remember that every great sculpture starts with a big rock.

You also may not like writing about yourself, but that means you’re halfway there.

A reflection of essence, not life.

A memoir is no different from a novel. It requires a similar structure, the same rises and falls, and interesting characters.

A memoir is not a novel, nor is it non-fiction. It is the beautiful blending of a life lesson with structure and calculated shading of the truth.

Unless you’re a celebrity, astronaut, or spy, your memoir doesn’t have to encompass your whole life. It may only be a month or a year.

So, which year or moment? Think about moments of epiphanies or sudden realization. From there, you work backward to identify different aspects of your life that relate to that epiphany. More important, redact everything that doesn’t relate; you don’t need that for the memoir.

For example, when I was 40 years old, I was mowing my lawn and realized that my children were past the age when the bone disease that completely altered my life could manifest. They were all in the clear, and what felt like a literal weight fell off my shoulders. This was my epiphany.

Now I’d look for all the key moments related to my own battle with the disease. That would include my father smoking, the symptoms of the disease manifesting, overhearing the doctor tell my mom I’d probably never walk again. There are dozens of other moments I’d capture.

There are also moments of my life that are interesting but don’t relate to the spine of the book (me dealing with the bone disease). So my encounter with Cher screaming at me goes out the door. Same goes for Gene Hackman. (They would fit if I was instead sharing my time at the Space Needle in Seattle).

Emotionally, it would cover the fear as a kid, the lies to the doctor to find relief, and the shame as an adult (didn’t make any sense, but shame often doesn’t)… that’s a lot to make it compelling.

Then you’d want to examine the people of the relevant bits of your life. Two things to consider:

  1. Would they mind you writing about them?
  2. Can any people be consolidated into one to make the narrative more clear? For example, I have three sisters and a brother. I might consolidate the sisters into one (for family, that might mean consolidating the actions and words, so one sister is active and the others are just mentioned).

That second point leads us to another important truth. Not every moment of the memoir needs to be accurate to be “true.” You’re telling a story, and a story has to be clear and organized. That isn’t life.

Examine each “scene” of your life, consolidate similar events, and shape them to tell a compelling story, not to be true to life. Imagine how a camera can tell a different story by focusing on a particular viewpoint. In the same way, it isn’t true in the sense of fact, it’s true to the emotion and the story.

From there, you use the “rules” of fiction to write the book. And you don’t like talking about yourself? Even better. Consider the “you” in the story as a different character, true to the essence of you, if not the word of you.

Finally, a memoir can be funny, scary, thoughtful, or any other subgenre.

There’s a lot more to be said about writing a memoir, but this might be enough to whet your appetite to consider a writing one.