Did the new year start with a resolution to write your memoir, that life story that belongs to you alone? Recording our lives dates to ancient times.
In 400 A.D St. Augustine completed a multi volume memoir. He was just 45 at the time. There are lessons to be learned from the saint's acclaimed writing you can apply to writing your own memoir. His memoir is described as 'heartfelt, incisive, and timeless.' Those words can form the cornerstones of your own memoir -- honesty, clear writing, and an overarching message that is ageless.
As Augustine's exemplified, a memoir is more than just recounting the facts of your life. Combine the facts with the philosophical and include the senses along with it -- the sights, sounds and smells of your life.
First and foremost answer the question why you want to write your memoir. What is driving your need to write? The memoir you are writing is your story, unique to you. Pack your fear of honesty at the door and answer why this story is important to you.
The truth frees you to be who you are honestly -- as a person. You may decide to change names if that is possible but a life burden can be lifted through heartfelt, thoughtful reflection on the event. In order for a memoir to be just that -- a memoir of your life, you can't hide from the truth.
Are you worried about what other people will think about your honesty?
Anne Lamott answered that question with this stellar quote " You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.'
However, your memoir is a reflection and should not be an incessant bitch session on your life. Although it is tempting to get even in print, finding a language that tells the story and leaves victim out of it can be a challenge but is very much the path you need to take.
A memoir should recall the good with the bad.
It is also useful to remember that everyone has their very own memory of family life. Each person in the family has a very different perspective. You may find family members disagree when they read your interpretation of the past. It might have been worse or better. This is your memoir, your memory and you alone own it. Your truth is its own defence.
I can speak from experience that writing about parts of your life that were less than happy can be cathartic. In the past several years I have written extensively about a very unhappy time. Initially I was scared beyond belief to put the truth in words. For years I had lived with the embarrassment of that part of my history. It was a history I didn't ask for or contribute to but was given without my consent. Through writing, I learned to control the narrative to the point where it no longer controlled me.
Don't make it all about your disappointments. A memoir should recall the good with the bad. An effective lesson in that regard is to take a particularly challenging or sad time in your life and focus on some good things that happened, a friendship that might have blossomed or a stranger's kindness. These elements add warmth and texture to your story.
Another approach-take a bird's eye view of a life event and what do you see? You are the central figure but who else is there and what do they contribute to your story?
There should be a sense of hope. When you are finished with a section of memoir read those passages out loud. Better still, read then into a voice recorder and listen. How does it sound? Is the story there minus the victim or is it the victim speaking? Jeannette Walls offers a fine example of voice symmetry in her memoir The Glass Castle.
If you are like me and seek out a good book to help you with a project, here are a few recommendations.
The Truth About Memoir by Kerry Cohen is chock full of exercises and advice and should be on your bookshelf if you are serious about writing an memoir.
Rx for Retirement A Boomers Guide to Memoir Writing by Sandra Evans is more than just for boomers and more than advice about writing your memoir. It is a workbook and will help you set up a systematic approach to your writing.
Writing Your Life : Putting Your Past On Paper by Lou Willett Stanek will help you flesh out memories to shape a more complete story. What birds were singing, what clothes were you wearing, or what songs were on the radio will help the reader make connections to your story beyond the words on the page.
Thomas Cirignano wrote a very successful memoir about his experience running an auto repair shop in Boston and offered this astute observation:
"Each of us is a book waiting to be written, and that book if written, results in a person explained. "
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"Strayed tells the story of her emotional devastation after the death of her mother and the weeks she spent hiking the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. As her family, marriage, and sanity go to pieces, Strayed drifts into spontaneous encounters with other men, to the consternation of her confused husband, and eventually hits rock bottom while shooting up heroin with a new boyfriend. Convinced that nothing else can save her, she latches onto the unlikely idea of a long solo hike." -- Booklist
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"Melissa Febos' new memoir, Whip Smart, details the four years she spent working as a dominatrix. Febos enacted fantasy sequences, spanked grown men and verbally humiliated them for $75 an hour in a dungeon located somewhere in midtown Manhattan." -- NPR
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"Mary Karr's haunting memoir of growing up in East Texas in the early 1960's, virtually motherless, and fiercely seeking to understand her parents, their lives and their relationship to her sister and herself." -- The New York Times
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"Susanna Kaysen's excoriating memoir about the nearly two years she spent in a psychiatric institution at the end of her teens." -- NPR
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"Nora Ephron has mastered the art of seeming likable -- a rarer facility than one might think. In tone and touch, her essay collection I Feel Bad About My Neck makes a useful bible for those of us who foster the less useful knack for seeming irritating." -- The Guardian
"In this memoir, the poet Meghan O'Rourke chronicles her mother's death and its desolate aftermath." -- The New York Times
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