Writing Craft

Memoir, Part I

The first question to ask when writing your memoir

My mother recorded this culture through relating common occurrences, like the arrival of a neighbor with a “turn” of corn for my great-grandfather’s gristmill; childhood dramas, like the time her doll’s face melted in the rain and my grandmother replaced its ruined head with a cloth one; and neighborhood traumas, like the typhoid epidemic that took several young family members. But my mom was true to her theme of presenting daily life in this area and era, now lost in the flow of time.

My friend, Debbie Quigley-Smith, plans to leave each of her children and grandchildren a book of poetry and a quilt. “So they will know me,” she says. I love her desire to be recognized as the many-faceted person that she is. Not just Mom, but a woman capable of deep reflection, who holds to the simplicity and security of beloved traditions, but who is also not afraid to examine the disturbing complexities of life through poetry and prose. Just as a fabric scrap in a quilt reminds us of Grandma’s apron, Debbie’s writing will become another element of family memory.

Memoir is currently popular, and many terrific memoirs have become huge commercial bestsellers, such as Jeannette Walls’ Half Broke Horses and The Glass Castle. Lots of people are talking about Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and the brouhaha around James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces ignited passionate discussions about the definition and boundaries of creative nonfiction.

I wonder if the desire to share our lives is related to the current social media craze. Or perhaps memoir’s popularity comes from the fragmentation of extended families. Kids once listened to Grandpa’s stories as they hoed the corn beside him. Now, Grandpa is across the country or around the world.

Or perhaps, as traditional ideologies come under fire, we seek meaning by examining our pasts. What has this brief time on earth meant? What was the point?

There are many reasons to write memoir. Possibly you have learned lessons worth sharing. Perhaps you need to work through a personal trauma or desire to contribute to your own family memory. Any reason to write memoir is valid. If you feel that you should, you should.

So, the first question to ask yourself as you plan your memoir is: Why?

Memoir is not autobiography

Autobiography is the history of your life. Memoir is a narrative composed of personal experience. A narrative is an artful representation of a story. Keywords here: history versus art.

Autobiography is factual record. Memoir is more about lessons learned. Memoir is not just a series of events strung together. Memoir is a series of events that have been carefully selected and presented to explore a certain theme. Your theme might be about adapting to a new culture, overcoming addiction, surviving abuse, the strength of family, how certain things remain as all else changes, or finding joy in the ordinary.

The theme determines the narrative structure of the memoir. For example, your autobiography would note that you moved to Hog Snout, Arkansas in 1987, where you lived for seven years. Perhaps not one blessed thing of interest happened in Hog Snout during your whole seven-year sojourn there, but you wouldn’t want to omit the entire episode from an autobiography. If you did, and you were anyone of note, someone would go digging into the Hog Snout years to find out what you were hiding.

But you can happily skip Hog Snout when writing memoir. In fact, you would only include events from Hog Snout if they related to your theme. So your theme would determine if, and where, in your narrative you include Hog Snout, for memoir does not have to be chronological.

You don’t have to know your theme when you begin your memoir. In the initial stage, it is enough to just write down what happened. But a theme will emerge. Because themes are universal. They replay over and over in millions of lives through the centuries. But never, ever, in the way that they have in yours.

Next time: The Second Question to ask when Writing your Memoir: Who?

Interested in learning to tell your story? The Community Writing Program will teach Introduction to Memoir on Sept. 15 at the Writers’ Colony. Cost for this all-day workshop is $45 and the workshop will include a presentation by Kim McCully-Mobley on Archiving and Organizing Family Mementos. For more information, contact or 479 292-3665.