Writing Your Memoir: Techniques for Success (Feature Post)

Today’s guest post comes to us by way of the Writers of Southern Nevada. Their upcoming one-day conference, Telling Your Story: The Craft and Business of Memoir Writing, has a fantastic lineup of authors and speakers. Be sure to check it out!

– Sara

By Linda Joy Myers

You’ve been thinking about writing a memoir—but you wonder where to start and how much to include. A memoir is a story, which means it has a structure, and uses fictional techniques to bring a reader into the world you are creating; a memoir needs one or two major themes as the focus. Let’s look at ways to help you begin and focus your memoir.

Turning Points

Your turning points are the emotional hot spots that you will capture in your memoir. They are the moments of BIG CHANGE, times when your life turned in another direction, often propelled by powerful forces. These can be inner forces—a spiritual awakening, or outer forces—an illness, moving to a new
house, or a sudden loss. A turning point might be a powerful moment of happiness—getting married, traveling, or the birth of a child.

  • List 10-15 of these turning point moments.
  • Use photo albums to refresh your memory, or old letters.
  • Visiting your home town or places where you lived can help you remember important moments.
  • Interviewing friends and relatives can help you remember more, but claim your own memories as your own!

Timeline

Chart your turning points on a timeline—draw a horizontal line to represent time, and vertical ones to track the decades. Charting significant moments, your turning points, can help you see your life through new eyes, and gives you a sense of the spine of your story. Do these moments have a theme? What is the arc of your story?

You can begin writing your turning point moments one by one. Begin with those that have a powerful emotional feeling. Emotion and change weave a story together.

Plot, Scene, and the Narrative Arc

The narrative arc is how your story flows from beginning to end. Think of it an overview of the plot, and how focus your book. Plot, narrative arc, and story structure are all ways of talking about the same thing—which is how your story begins, develops, and ends.

Important things to remember when creating your narrative arc

  • Unlike journaling, a story has a form—a beginning, middle, and an end. Another way to think about this is that your story, your book, needs to have a dramatic structure: Act One, Act Two, and Act Three.
  • Something significant happens in each scene—the point of the scene.
  • A story has a reason for being told—this is your theme.
  • The protagonist—in a memoir it’s you!—is changed significantly by events, actions, and epiphanies. The growth and change of the main character is imperative in any story, and is the primary reason a memoir is written—to show the arc of character change from beginning to end.
  • All stories have conflict, rising action, a crisis, a climax, and a resolution.
  • By the end, the protagonist is transformed.

Scenes and Chapters
Scenes are building blocks that show the action as if on the stage. These moments of ‘‘being there,’’ where the reader is brought into the story world, are created through the use of sensual details, dialogue, and description. Remember the old cliché: ‘‘show, don’t tell.’’ As we experience the world of
the scene, our senses are engaged.

Each scene shows:

  • Something significant event or challenge that advances the action
  • A protagonist with ongoing conflicts and problems that are not immediately solvable.
  • A setting where the action takes place.
  • A time frame for the action.
  • Characters are developed in each scene, preferably through dialogue and action.
  • Be sure to include sensual details such as sight, sound, smell, and feeling.
  • Use colors, texture, and smell to enhance a scene.
  • Strong verbs and nouns enhance the feeling of being in the world of the story.

If you keep these tips in mind, your memoir will soar from the page and begin to weave the world of your memories. Remember, journaling—which is where most memoirists start—does not require the techniques that we list here, but story writing does.

Read well written memoirs and fiction. Learn from those who have written books that move you. Write regularly, remembering to be patient with the process.

One scene at a time, one story at a time builds your memoir into a book!

Linda Joy Myers, Ph.D., MFT, is the President and founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers, Instructor at Writers Digest, and past president of the CWC Marin branch. She is the author of The Power of Memoir—How to Write Your Healing Story, and the award winning memoir Don’t Call Me Mother. Linda has won prizes for her work in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Linda gives workshops nationally, and helps people capture their stories through coaching, editing, and online workshops.

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