To start writing a memoir, you need structures.
The big structure is the journey. Where does it start? Where does it end? What happens in between? For tips on the journey, click on this link, The Natural Journey.
The smaller structure is the Memoir Moment – a way to handle the layers of memory. For tips, click on this link: Memoir Moments.
To start reading a memoir, you should draw circles around objects and body-parts. That simple act of encircling will keep you focused. Use different inks – reds, blues, greens, purples, some black. You’ll remember more of what you read.
Reading Other Writers: You read other memoirs to find out basic stuff: how many pages, how many characters, how many places, how long are the chapters, and where does the style sing?
Model Memoir: If you haven’t found a good model memoir, explore the work of prolific memoir writers like Natalie Goldberg (Long Quiet Highway), Calvin Trillin (Remembering Denny), or Lauren Slater (Lying, Prozac Diary).
The examples in the list (numbers, techniques, quotes, etc.) come from Lying , by Lauren Slater.
- What is the model memoir about? (Slater writes about Lying , bending the truth, and about epilepsy.)
- How is the material divided? Parts? Chapters? Sections? Scenes? Memoir Moments? (Slater has four parts, eight chapters, and an afterword.)
- How many pages in your model memoir? (Lying has 221 pages.)
- How long is the longest chapter or section? (Slater’s chapter 6, The Cherry Tree, runs from page 109-158.)
- How short is the shortest section or chapter? (Slater’s chapter 1, no title, is two words long: “I exaggerate.”)
- What is the time span of your model memoir? (Lying opens when Slater is ten. It ends when she is a freshman at Brandeis.)
- Have you read deep enough to come up with a core story? (Because Slater’s Lying starts when Slater is ten and ends when she’s in college, the Core Story is Coming of Age. It’s also a story of death and resurrection – Slater as Osiris, the Egyptian Vegetation God.) For more on Core Story click here.
- How does the author handle time-jumps? (On page 110, Slater grows three years in five words: “I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen.” On the next page, she leaps in school: “In the tenth grade, I joined the drama club. In the eleventh grade, I started tennis.”)
- What are the important locations in your model memoir? (Lying locations: Boston, Logan Airport, Barbados, Topeka, Kansas, Boston Suburb, Brandeis, Bread Loaf, Vermont.)
- What are the important settings for scenes or memoir moments? (Slater: exam rooms, hospitals, schools, churches, mountain and bedroom at the Bread Loaf conference.)
- What are the important rituals? Tip: check out Jack’s essay in this blog, with this link, Ritual in Memoir & Fiction, where he analyzes barter, threshold crossing, language lesson, etc. (Lying has myriad rituals, but the most interesting ritual is going to school in Topeka to learn the art of falling: “The whole point of the school was falling, not nuns.”)
- What are the recurring objects in your model memoir? (Slater’s prose is rich with objects: lobster, piano, blood, vodka, red wine, red church doors, oranges, pews – bristling on each page.)
- What rhetorical devices do you see in your model memoir? Tip: If you look for patterns, you’ll find evidence of Greek and Roman rhetoric still alive today. They have fancy names like anadiplosis, polysyndeton, and chiasmus. Click Syntactic Flex in this blog for more on rhetorical devices. (Slater’s prose bristles with rhetoric. Here’s a chiasmus: “I was born from nothing and to nothing I will return.”)
- Who are the important people in your model memoir? Make a list. (In Lying , Slater writes about her parents, doctors, nuns, counselors, students, writers, AA members, her lover.)
- Which people stand out from the others? Which ones get the most ink? (In Lying , Mom is a Terrible Parent; Christopher Marin, a famous writer, is a Terrible Lover.)
- How does your model memoir describe the people? (In Lying , Slater compares the nuns to angels: “They were, day after day, stern and white, upright angels.” With Christopher Marin, the famous writer, she moves closer with body parts – “He had green eyes sunk in facial wrinkles, and broad arms tipped with hairs bronzed by the sun.
- How many Memoir Moments have you found? Tip: Memoir Moment is to the memoir what the dramatic scene is to film, fiction, and theater. Click this link: Memoir Moments. (Slater’s meeting with a famous writer at Breadloaf is made of firsts and lasts: First Sighting, First Touch, First Sex, First Phone Call, Last Phone Call.)
- Does your model memoir follow any parts of The Natural Journey? Cage? Escape? Quest? Dragon? Home?
- Cage: the book opens with Slater in a Cage – her jailer is Mom, a Terrible Parent Archetype.
- Escape: Slater escapes Mom when she attends the Falling School in Topeka, Kansas.
- Quest: Slater’s Quest takes her through high school to Bread Loaf, where she encounters her Terrible Lover, who gives her wisdom through suffering – the pangs of possessive love. The Quest also takes her into a church, where she joins AA: her addiction is lying about epilepsy.
- Dragon: Stronger now, Slater confronts Mom (Terrible Parent) and sees weakness where once was dominating power.
- Home: Slater leaves the AA group – rejecting that for a home – and winds up with a book – “Here is what I am. Thus, myself. My memoir, please.”