How to write a memoir

Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.”  ~From “The Wonder Years” 

DSCN4451Several years ago, I decided to write a St. Patricks Day column about my mothers beloved Grandpa Finney, the son of an Irish immigrant.* I knew he was a moderately successful watercolor artist — and one of the most eccentric characters perched on our family tree — but I needed more material for my piece.

Turning to Mom for help, I asked her to jot down a few memories of her grandfather. Thrilled by the invitation, she gathered a handful of vintage family photographs and got to work. Her four-page letter recounted poignant stories of how Grandpa Finney struggled to make a living as a commercial illustrator during the Depression, working such long hours that hed often fall asleep at his drafting table.

I only wish I had asked my mother to do this more often. In recent years, vascular dementia has robbed or altered most of her memories, and she has no living relatives to share any family anecdotes left untold.

Since then, Ive come to believe that our life stories are the most valuable legacies we can leave our loved ones — and that its never too early to start writing them down.

Once you commit to the project, youll want to create a “memoir file” in your computer. Inspiration is unpredictable, so make a habit of keeping your favorite pen and a notebook handy, too. But before you begin, its important to understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.

“Memoir isnt the summary of a life, its a window into a life, very much like a photograph is selective in its composition,” William Zinsser explains in On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (Harper Perennial).

In other words, your autobiography would document your entire life, starting with your earliest memories and chronicling events up to the present. A memoir, on the other hand, would focus tightly on a peak experience or turning point, such as the summer your uncle taught you how to operate his tractor before you were old enough to drive, or the year you were diagnosed with breast cancer.

I encourage students in my writing workshops to choose memoir over autobiography. Its much easier to write about one key experience at a time, whether your goal is a book-length memoir or a series of short personal essays.

Here are a few tips to help you mine some memorable treasure:

  1. Make a list of life-changing events, large and small. Put a check by the ones youll want to write about first.
  2. Hush your inner critic and give yourself permission to write freely. Worry about editing and packaging the final product after youve written a first draft.
  3. Explore your stash of souvenirs and heirlooms. Choose one, then write an essay about how you acquired it and what it means to you. (If you plan to pass the item along to a loved one, include a copy of your piece.)
  4. Use a family recipe as a prompt and delve into the memories it stirs. Your Italian grandmothers spicy eggplant Parmesan, for instance, is redolent of old-country stories and celebrations.
  5. Grab a box of colored pencils and draw a map of your childhood bedroom. Write about your favorite toys and the pals who visited.
  6. Interview the elders in your family, asking them to share anything from a love song to a war story. Record the interview.
  7. Be a master of detail. Use proper names and employ all of your senses when you write. Turn to family photo albums if you need visual reminders of former homes, cars, and clothing styles.
  8. Avoid aimless rambling; make a point and arrive at a conclusion. Your memoir will be more engaging if it imparts your wisdom, advice or a life lesson.

As Saul Bellow once wrote, “Memories keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” When we commit our stories to the page, were often surprised to discover that our “ordinary” lives are richer than wed realized. We renew our appreciation for everything weve inherited, earned, or lost along the way – including our eccentric relatives. — Cindy La Ferle

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— This column was originally published in Prime magazine (formerly Michigan Senior Living) last year. My column appears bimonthly in the magazine. Watch for the next issue in the April 7 edition of the Sunday Detroit News and Free Press. —

*The St. Patrick’s Day column, titled “My Wild Irish Relative,” is included in my essay collection, Writing HomePhoto shown above: A watercolor painting by Russell P. Finney, given to my parents on their wedding day.

 

Digging the family dirt

Perhaps the questions the writer most fears from her potential readers is: Why have you done this? With the implication: Why have you done this to me? — Mary Gordon, Circling My Mother

Can we get too personal when we’re writing our memoirs or family stories? Is it wiser to stuff the hard emotional truth into a private journal and keep quiet?

The dilemma hit home last week when I visited my mother in her new assisted living residence. On the table in her kitchenette was a fresh copy of Michigan Senior Living, a publication featuring a new column I’d written about my mother’s difficult transition to assisting living. Oops. It should go without saying that I didn’t intend for my mother to see it.

Focusing on the heartbreak of Mom’s battle with vascular dementia, the column was the most difficult assignment I’ve ever tackled. So I was relieved to learn later that my candid story helped many readers who are facing similar challenges with their parents.

In any event, I have no idea how the magazine found its way to her apartment. My mother doesn’t subscribe to the newspaper that includes Michigan Senior Living as a supplement.

As it happens, Mom’s vascular dementia has progressed to the point where she can’t process and retain new information. Not all that long ago, she’d devour decorating magazines and mystery novels faster than I could supply her with new editions — but she’s lost her ability to read much of anything now. Regardless, I discretely pulled the publication off her table and stuffed it into my tote bag.

Having worked as a family newspaper columnist for years, I’ve wrestled with similar issues many times before. But this recent episode got me thinking about how risky personal writing can be — whether we’re writing about our parents, children, siblings, or in-laws.

How much is too personal?

In “How to Write a Memoir” in The American Scholar, author and creative writing professor William Zinsser offers some excellent advice. “Your first job is to get your story down as you remember it—now,” Zinsser says. “Dont look over your shoulder to see what relatives are perched there. Say what you want to say, freely and honestly, and finish the job. Then take up the privacy issue.”

If your relatives are named or clearly identified in print, Zinsser suggests, you may want to show them the pages in which they are mentioned. But be prepared for your family to ask you to remove anything they don’t like.

“Finally, its your story,” Zinsser says. “Some of your relatives will wish you hadnt said some of the things you said, especially if you reveal various family traits that are less than lovable. But I believe that at some level most families want to have a record left of their effort to be a family, however flawed that effort was, and they will give you their blessing and will thank you for taking on the job—if you do it honestly and not for the wrong reasons.”

The “wrong reasons” vary from writer to writer, so it’s important to question your own motives when you sit down to write. If youre hoping to commit an act of vengeance, for instance, youre definitely on the wrong track. On the other hand, if you aim to uplift, inform, comfort, or provide a service to your readers, your good intentions will shine through the most painful parts of your piece.

What to leave in — or out

In my own memoir classes, I often ask students to make a list of the most compelling memoirs and autobiographies they’ve ever read. Did the writers of those memoirs gloss over their most difficult experiences? Were their chapters free of conflict? Were the characters entirely noble, flawless, or problem-free? Probably not. Life is incredibly complex and messy, and no family is perfect.

Even if you enjoy reading other people’s dirt and drama, you’re probably squeamish when it comes to sharing your own. And it’s entirely possible that you might be better off writing poetry or science fiction instead. But if you want to write an honest and richly detailed memoir, you will have to confront the hard truth as well as the soft.

Brett Paesel agrees. Writing without censoring early in the process will usually “produce the freshest, deepest draft,” says Paesel, author of Mommies Who Drink and a popular blog, Last of the Bohemians. “As I’m revising, I make choices about what I want a reader to read,” she says. “Often, I leave in quite a bit. My family knows what I do and I’m not normally an unkind person.”

As Paesel notes, if you don’t want your memoir to be “totally soft,” it’s likely that you’ll risk offending someone. “Off the top of my head I can’t remember who said, ‘If people don’t like what you’ve written about them, they shouldn’t have behaved so badly,’ but they have a point.”

What do you think? Have you written anything about your family that you’d be reluctant to publish? How would you handle sensitive material?

— Top photo: “My Wall of Fame” by Cindy La Ferle —

When stories are prayers

“To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.” — Thomas Campbell, Hallowed Ground

Last week I attended a standing-room-only funeral service for a young man in his early twenties. I’ve never been to a memorial service where so many people wanted to stand up and declare their love and caring for the deceased.

Though his mother and I have been friends for several years, I didn’t know the young man very well. But I learned a lot about him through the anecdotes his friends and family shared at his memorial service.

I heard funny stories detailing his favorite foods. I heard stories recalling the sense of playfulness he brought to work every day. I learned about his passion for military history and animals.

Like everyone else at the funeral, I wondered if the young man, who died tragically, had realized how many people he’d touched in his short lifetime; how deeply he was loved.

At the end of the service, the pastor reminded us that every story shared that morning was a prayer as well as a memory. I thought that was true and beautiful.

The words “memorial” and “memoir” share the same Latin root, memoria, which means “belonging to memory.” Once we share a story, it also belongs to everyone who hears or reads it. It becomes a prayer for the living, too.

— Top photo is a detail from one of my altered books. —