I am currently writing a memoir entitled: The Inside Story – Memoirs of the Otago Microbiology Department. I was reminded of a blog post from Bookbaby that had a list principles of storytelling that one should adhere to when writing a memoir. A memoir is not an autobiography – it doesn’t cover an entire life. A memoir is about a particular phase of a life, one with its own beginning, middle, and ending. A memoir is akin to fiction in its being a story; but it is a true story.
It is a collection of memories and the meanings attached to them. My story is about the unique NZ academic experience that is different, but also shared by other academics around the world that worked during the period 1970 – 2010. It is about the character and esprit de corps of the Department and the personalities that loomed larger than life.
Even though they are facts, memoirs have an element of design, a condensed version of real life, that should adhere to the same principles of great storytelling as fiction does.
There are several challenges associated with writing a memoir. Deciding how to cope with each challenge before you begin to write your memoir will greatly aid the process of getting your story down on paper (or online).
1. Decide which span of time you are describing
What is the opening and what is the ending? This is the same as a novel; all good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending that contains a climax and brings about a resolution.
2. Decide whether you are sticking with pure fact, or whether you are going to embellish
Embellishment might only mean changing the names of those involved to protect privacy. Deeper changes might involve the omission of key events, changes in the true chronology of events, or slight changes to help focus the story. For example, two people who helped you along your way might be merged into a single composite character to help the “plot” and the reader. Fiction has a similar balance, but it is often in reverse. Pure imagination is inspired by aspects of the truth. For example, a fictional character might be based on a friend.
3. Decide how personal you are going to get
The whole purpose of writing your memoir might be to air out everything that happened, especially if your experiences might help someone else know they are not alone in what they are going through. On the other hand, you might be willing to share certain aspects of your life, but not others. Decide where to draw the line and how it will impact the story. Of course, this applies to everyone in your memoir as well. While you might be willing to share details of events and actions that took place, the real people involved may not be, and you’ll have to deal with this. Fiction has a similar aspect in that each author puts some personal experience and a private world view into any work of fiction, it’s just a matter of degree, and what is private is never explicitly defined.
4. Decide the message of your memoir
What was the purpose of taking the time to write the memoir? How is this message specific to you but universal? How can others relate and what can they draw from it? This is where the power of personal narrative lies. This spirit of the memoir is the magic of the genre. Leave out the mundane details and focus on what makes this a story different from anyone else’s.
You may discover new angles to the story you’re telling. As humans, we grow and learn constantly. Writing your memoir will likely change you as a person. You might be surprised as you dig deeper into your story, and especially as you get feedback from others, that you see things differently from how you first saw them.
It’s easier to write a memoir when it’s far enough in the past that you have fully processed what happened and have gained perspective on the events. If you are still in the process of trying to understand those events, it might just be too early to write your memoir. Then again, writing, with all the analysis and retrospection it requires, can be a great trigger for moving ahead in life by gaining distance from the past.