Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

Write Your Memoir

Preserve your memories, for you--and for your loved ones.

Why do people write memoirs?

For the same reasons we gossip, go to movies, read fiction and biographies and memoirs, attend the theater, follow the lives of celebrities or get wrapped up in soap operas. Because we're sociable! And when it comes to our own lives, we feel clearer-headed and happier when events that affected us deeply are refined into a story that we can share with others.

You may think your life isn't worthy of a memoir unless you did something that has already put your name in the newspapers.

But there are many different types of memoir. Write about your childhood, like Frank McCourt did so movingly in Angela's Ashes. Write about your travels, as Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love. Write about a connection with a strong personality, as Lorna Kelly did in The Camel Knows the Way, which tells the story of her time with Mother Teresa. Mary-Ann Tirone Smith traced a murder in Girls of Tender Age.

Many memoirs are about illness, or coping with the illness of others in your life. You can write about the importance of friendships or siblings or a marriage.

In fact, if you write about seemingly unremarkable events in your voice--distilling your honesty, humor, insight or compassion-your book can be as inspiring or touching as a story about high drama. You can bond with readers, who like you, have not lived through extraordinary events, but the ordinary events that make life extraordinary.

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The challenge is coaxing the story out. As you write, you will hear yourself think. Eventually you will decide on what is most important, to you. One person's version of events can be completely different in meaning and tone than another's. Your story is yours.

A clear story has a theme, though it may be subtle. You will choose to include some details and leave others out. The story will lie in your choice of words, pacing, and statements about the world, as well as the interest in the situation and how it unfolds. 

You may think you have a story to tell but not the skills to tell it. We've all heard people talk with every detail included, making their listeners work too hard. And we've all heard good storytellers, who make you eager to hear the next word.

If you're already an easy talker, you may find that it's not as easy to write--but you're still half-way there. You may need to talk into a tape recorder and pull out the best parts when you listen to your recording.

If you're shy in person, you may find that speaking to invisible readers frees you up. It sometimes helps to imagine one particular reader--an author you admire, a high-school English teacher, a loved one who has passed away, or your own grandchild grown up.

Writing a memoir can give you satisfactions that remind me of how I feel when I pray--I don't have a strong conception of God, but when I pray that feel that someone is listening.

I kept a diary as a child, conscious that I was writing for my future self, and would say, "Someday you will be grownup reading this and know what you like when you were child."

People often are drawn to memoir in older age, when they have time for reflection and want to leave a story for their children and grandchildren to read. If you write down your stories, they are not lost. They are not lost in your memory--you can reread them as long as you are alive. And it is very likely that someone in your family will read your book and keep it close at hand when you are gone.

In my own family, my grandmother's memoir became very important to us after she died, and helped us sort out mysteries about her past. My nephew Ben met his fiance after my mother died--both women are playwrights, and I know they would have been crazy about each other. His fiance has read her autobiographical play as a way of getting to know her.

My mother was talking about writing a memoir about a year before she became suddenly ill, and there was no more time. I wish I had that memoir now.

Writing a memoir is an act of believing in yourself and the value of your life for others.

Perhaps you are haunted by a mistake--writing a memoir may be a confession, and a way to give readers the benefit of your regret.

Perhaps you are happy about your role in events you can't talk about openly.

Perhaps you are perplexed about the role someone else played in your life and need to tell the stories so you can see past blame or shame.

A good therapist can help with this process, as you look at your history or patterns of thinking in a new way. A good writing group or class can be inspiring and provide structure to keep you on a work schedule. A sympathetic, talented professional editor can apply writing skills that bring out your meaning and perfect your language, so you can communicate powerfully and clearly even though you haven't spent your life learning to write well.

Remember that the process is valuable for you, and the result will be treasured by those who love you. And you may even win a larger public audience.

For writing coaching or editing, contact me at expertediting.org.

 

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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