The bad news about memoir: Nobody wants to read your life story.
The good news: That means you don’t have to write your life story.
Once you start a memoir with the glorious moment you were born, planning to sail onward through early childhood and then into the turbulent waters of adolescence, you soon realize you’re not in a grand sea-faring craft but in a rather leaky lifeboat. On the high seas. And you’re trapped out there, uncertain which way to paddle.
What happens next is the cause of writers everywhere abandoning ship: You realize you’ve already got 50 pages, you’re only up to fifth grade, you’re bored to death with yourself, and you’d prefer to rearrange your sock drawer. Or change the cat litter. Or do anything else, really.
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There’s a common misconception that “memoir” means “autobiography.” It used to. We used to think of old Colonel Wellington, settling in with a glass of sherry by the fire and writing his memoirs, recounting his childhood on the Thames, which in Volume Four brings him to the tales of the great lion hunting he did in the veldt.
But really, that’s autobiography, which starts at the beginning, goes through your whole life, and ends near when you do. It’s a real feat to pull this off; you have to have a vibrant, unparalleled writing style, a truly compelling story, and a lot of free time. And it doesn’t hurt if you’re Nelson Mandela, Katharine Hepburn, or even Ozzy Osbourne, and you can hire an assistant. In other words, if you’re famous.
One reason it’s so hard to write your autobiography is that by necessity, you’ll be relying on tales you’ve heard from your parents and other family for your earliest years. Ironically, these tales don’t often make for compelling memoir, even though they’re the stuff that binds families together and provide decades-long laughter at the reunion or Thanksgiving table. These stories tend to have a staleness to them when they’re re-told on the page. When they can spontaneously come up in conversation, they can be lively and witty and fun, but when you write them, especially in the context of telling your life story, it’s very difficult to breathe new life into them.
The stories of our early lives don’t easily lend themselves to compelling memoir, because they’re often told from outside ourselves – think of the story your mother tells about the time you so adorably insisted on sleeping in your brand-new sneakers when you were 4. That’s your mother’s story, not yours. It’s very hard to access your own version of that story, because, well, you were 4; your own story lacks your adult-self’s understanding of your child-self’s inner world.
So while your early life undoubtedly informs the most interesting stories of your adult life, you often don’t need to include the stories that have accumulated; rather, you need to delve into your understanding of the stories.
The best way to approach memoir – the way that will keep you paddling even when the waters get rough – is by considering a particular problem that you’ve dealt with or a difficult moment in your life that has the elements of great narrative: a page-turning plot, interesting characters, and lots of conflict.
That last one is important to consider in choosing what to write your memoir about. Conflict isn’t two people screaming at each other. That’s drama. Conflict is someone wanting something, and there’s something in the way of getting it. Or wanting two things in direct opposition to each other.
You want to save for a new car, but you also want those great-looking high heels with the tassels. Well, that’s an easy one. But your memoir will consider deeper conflicts, where the stakes are higher: You wanted to be loyal to your friend, but you’re afraid to tell her that her husband was cheating on her. Or you wanted to take the job that paid more so you could support your kids better, but you knew it would involve setting some of your personal values aside. Or you wanted to go to college, but you also wanted to stay home and care for your ill mother.
To write that story, we don’t need to begin in your early childhood; instead, jump right to getting the acceptance letter, because that’s when the most compelling conflict starts. At some point in the writing, you’ll realize you want to tell the reader something about your childhood with your mother, so the reader gains a better understanding of how heartbreaking it is to consider leaving her when she needs you. That’s OK, but this is information that you can gradually dole out, so your reader doesn’t become swamped by the past story and instead keeps reading into the present-moment story.
When I say “present-moment story,” I mean that every narrative has a present-moment from which the story moves forward in time. As you start drafting your story, keep thinking about what the best present-moment is. It’s going start, probably, just before the most dramatic conflict moment and then move forward from there, with a bit of backstory woven in little by little.
It can help to think not only about times in your life that you may want to write about but also about themes. Consider what lens you’ll be looking through to write about yourself. We all have multiple lenses, and these can change as we move through life. At one point, you may consider your life through the lens of growing up in a biracial home; at another point, it’s the fact that you are dyslexic; at another, what fascinates you is that you decided not to have children.
Take, for example, a decision to stop drinking, informed by a childhood growing up with an alcoholic father. Of course, the childhood stories will eventually be incorporated into the memoir, but the main story will involve that first AA meeting and all the present-moment factors that led to it.
Or maybe you look at your life through the lens of a chronic illness. Again, ask yourself what the most conflict-rich moment is, and start the story just before that: maybe it’s a decision about treatment, or maybe it’s seeing your own child through the lens of health and illness.
Now, it may be that the story you most want to tell actually did take place when you were a child. That’s fine. You can start your story in childhood and end it in childhood. You’ll do a lot of research, both internal and external, but you’ll contain the story to a particular present-moment of your childhood. Don’t feel you need to then go on to tell the reader everything that happened after that.
Let’s stay with the childhood illness idea for a moment. You have clear memories of doctors, hospitals, testing, and so on. Write all those memories down, and do some research into the condition and what was known medically at the time. Ask your family for their memories of it. As you do all this, you’ll start to develop your own theory about what happened – your parents did a lousy job with a challenging situation, or they rallied and you never realized what a great job they did. Or maybe you see now, looking back, just how isolated your childhood was, and that lets you see how isolated you’ve allowed yourself to become as an adult.
Great stuff. Now you can weave in bits of that adult understanding in with the main story, which takes place in the present-moment of childhood.
So either way, you have your present-moment story, with the most conflict-rich narrative, the interesting characters, and you’re seeing it through a particular lens, then weaving in what happened in the past or what happens later, in the future.
And either way, you’ve spared yourself, and your reader, from having to laboriously paddle through your entire life story; instead, the brisk winds of the present-moment story will push you happily to the shore of a finished draft.
Sarah Van Arsdale is the author of four novels and a book-length poem with her illustrations titled The Catamount. She’ll be teaching a course in autobiographical fiction with Writers Harbor in Maine in August 2019 and a 10-day intensive in Oaxaca, Mexico, in January 2020. She also teaches in the Antioch/LA low-residency MFA program. See sarahvanarsdale.com for more.