Given the remarkable interest from Writing.ie readers in the writing of memoir, we decided to re-publish this excellent series of articles from the authors of The Accidental Memoir, Eve Makis and Anthony Cropper.
Your memoir has already been written. Now all you need to do is get the words down.
Memoir is not like writing a novel or a film. We haven’t all been in spy stories or found hidden treasure or fought over lost magical rings. Fiction needs to be invented (thought it obviously can and does draw on life and experience for inspiration). But your life? Your memories? Your memoir? You’ve lived it. You’re the world’s leading expert on your own life. After all, you were there at the start, you were there when it all became so complicated, and (sadly) you’ll be there at the end.
So, where do you begin? How do you do it? What to include? Remember, there’s no ‘one way,’ one style, one approach to writing memoir, no one size fits all. You’ll have to find what works for you by trial and error. Here are some approaches, some techniques, some general tips.
- A fast and furious first draft
Try getting your story down, quickly, without editing or censoring. You can flesh out, restructure and polish later. We’ve both been teaching writing for years, written novels, plays and films. We know how rough first drafts can be. No need to let anyone see your initial attempt. Just have fun and let the memories flow. Explore. Let your creativity go wild.
- Don’t worry about offending people
The writer William Zinsser said: ‘Don’t look over your shoulder to see what relatives are perched there. Say what you want to say, freely and honestly, and finish the job.’ Don’t play it safe. Write it all down, the good, the bad and the ugly. You can decide what to leave out a later date. If your memoir’s taken up by a publisher you can discuss the do’s and don’ts of defamation with your editor! For now, don’t self-edit.
- Do your research
Enrich your memoir by researching you family name. Interview a friend or relative to flesh out that half-formed memory. Dig a little deeper into family history. See if your story connects in some way to your ancestors. Does you love of baking stretch through the generations?
- Write every day
Little and often is better than a binge at the weekend. Keep a notepad by your bed. Those wonderful lines and images and memories that come at night may be lost in the commotion of the following day. Write at that particular time of day when you’re most awake, most productive. First thing in the morning? Last thing at night? Flexing your writing muscles a little every day is the best way to build up the stamina you’ll need to get the finish line.
- Be specific
Don’t say my husband bought me a bunch of flowers for our anniversary. Say he arrived with twelve red roses. Or syrup-scented white orchids. Maybe he surprised you with daisies he’d plucked from the garden? The type of flower, the method of delivery speak volumes about you and him, your relationship. Being specific will make your writing real.
- Show don’t tell
Don’t say we had a wonderful holiday in Cornwall. Try to show it by describing the memories. Tell us how you sat out till it grew dark and you drank Beaujolais while listening to the sea lapping the sides of the yachts in the harbour. And then the stars came out and you made a wish for that night to never end. You have permission to be cliché. Your life isn’t monitored by the word police.
- Use your senses
We experience the world through our senses. Where are you now? What can you hear? Are you warm or cold? Is there a breeze through an open window? When you write, try to include sounds and smells and textures. It’ll make your writing bristle with life and will transport the reader to another time and place.
When you’ve finally put the words down, return to your writing and start to edit. Look for repetitions, tense changes and general consistency. Make sure your writing is as true and honest as you can make it. Spelling and grammar comes at the end and before you let others see, make sure you’ve given the work a good proof read. Line by line. Chapter by chapter.
- Listen to advice
Hand the book to someone who knows something about writing and about you. Find someone who’s willing (and able) to offer constructive advice (even a professional editor if you can afford it). Don’t give it to your mum or someone who’s likely to shower you with compliments. The feedback might hurt. It might flatter. Use your inner sensors to decide what helps and what doesn’t. No need to take everything on board. Just weigh it up. Have faith in your abilities. Wait till you’ve finished before the big reveal.
So, you’ve got your memoirs down. Now it’s time to shape and rearrange. Where do you start and end? How do you draw these fragments together? Can you find a hook, an angle, a line, a thread? Can you pull you memories together into something tight and focussed?
(c) Eve Makis and Anthony Cropper
About The Accidental Memoir:
The Accidental Memoir truly is for all: writers and non-writers, teachers and students, the perfect book for anyone seeking inspiration or imaginative ways to explore their own life story.
The story of you.
The Accidental Memoir takes you on a journey of self-discovery, from the origins of your family name and earliest memories, to what you’d invent and how you’d change the world. This beautifully illustrated book is filled with inventive and accessible writing prompts, as well as tips for anyone wanting to document their lives and explore their creativity.
Want to flex your writing muscles, exorcise your demons, relive moments of magic, make sense of life, have fun and leave a lasting legacy? The Accidental Memoir will show you how.
This innovative concept was developed as an Arts Council project to help people tap into their own lives. Working with diverse groups from refugees to the elderly and prisoners, it has been a resounding success in unearthing stories that otherwise may never have been told.
Order your copy online here.