How to write a memoir

This article was originally published in Michigan Prime, in November 2015.

Your memoir may be the most valuable treasure you leave for your loved ones. Heres how to get started…

IMG_0384Ill never forget a certain elderly gentleman who showed up at one of the first memoir writing classes I taught at a local senior center, many years ago.

Under each arm he carried a large grocery bag stuffed with old letters, sepia-toned photos and leather-bound journals. When it was his turn to introduce himself to the class, he announced that he hoped to turn the contents of the grocery bags into a “national bestseller.” Then he turned to me and asked if I would look through all the materials and “ghost-write” his memoir. (As I discovered in subsequent workshops, this kind of request wasn’t at all unusual. I had to learn to say “no” as gently as possible.)

For starters, I explained that I wasnt a biographer – and that nobody else can write our memoirs for us. And I wasn’t in the business of editing or ghostwriting. But I promised to help guide him through the process during our time together in the class.

Written by heart — in our own words — our memoirs probably wont top the bestseller lists. But they could be the most valuable legacies we bequeath to our loved ones. Luckily, the gentleman with the grocery bags had saved plenty of evidence of a life richly lived. All he needed was the time and the discipline to spin it into a readable story.

Memoir defined

Whether your goal is to pen a book-length memoir or a few personal essays, its essential 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, say, your first memory of nursery school and chronicling events up to the present. A memoir, on the other hand, would focus tightly on a peak experience or turning point, starting with, say, the brittle November afternoon your father was diagnosed with Alzheimers, or the day you quit your office job to work at a rodeo.

Mining your buried treasure

Like the man with the grocery bags brimming with souvenirs, most new memoirists are overwhelmed by the thought of choosing which stories to share – or where to begin. The following tips usually subdue their fears and help plow through writers block at various points along the way.

  1. Silence your inner critic and write freely. Your first order of business is to get words on paper or on the computer. Worry about editing and packaging the final product after youve written a first draft. (See #8.)
  2. Take small bites. Start with a series of short personal essays, each on a different experience. Gathered together, these could be expanded as chapters in your book.
  3. Be a family archaeologist. Unearth old memories while exploring keepsakes and heirlooms. Choose one item, then write about how you acquired it and what it means to you.
  4. Get cooking. Use a family recipe as a prompt and write the memories it stirs. My Scottish grandmothers shortbread recipe, for instance, is redolent of her old-country proverbs and family gatherings.
  5. Brush up your interview skills. Talk with elders in your family, asking them to share anything from a favorite love song to war stories.
  6. Use sensory detail and proper names. Turn to family photo albums if you need visual reminders of former homes, cars, and clothing styles.
  7. Avoid aimless rambling, no matter how poetic. Your memoir will be more engaging if it imparts wisdom or a life lesson. Let your stories reveal who you are.
  8. Read published memoirs; observe how other writers craft their work. Ask your librarian for recommendations.
  9. Polish your gems. Proofread your final draft to catch errors of fact, spelling or grammar. Show your work to friends or family members if youre worried about getting stories straight.

The ultimate reward

Once youve committed a few memories to the page, youre entitled to feel proud of your accomplishment. Keep writing.

As memoirist Mary Karr notes in her new book, The Art of Memoir (HarperCollins; $31), it takes courage to share our true experiences: “None of us can ever know the value of our lives, or how our separate and silent scribbling may add to the amenity of the world, if only by how radically it changes us, one by one.”

 

Home for the holidays

DSCN2880Now in its second printing and available on KindleWriting Home is a collection of my published magazine essays and family newspaper columns. Awarded several prizes for creative nonfiction, it’s been dubbed “a love letter to home and family life.” If you enjoy my personal blog and current newspaper essays, you might appreciate this collection of earlier memoirs, too.

To read excerpts, reviews, and the new introduction to the Kindle edition, please click this link and visit the book’s page on Amazon.

To purchase Writing Home locally, visit The Yellow Door Art Market, where you’ll find a wonderful selection of other Michigan books and gifts for everyone on your list.

 

 

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 —

Memoir under attack

“Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” — Saul Bellow

Is it time to stop the flow of memoirs? On Sunday, in “The Problem with Memoirs,” New York Times reviewer Neil Genzlinger made what he called “a possibly futile effort to restore some standards to this absurdly bloated genre.”

Then he went on to review four new memoirs to illustrate his points. Genzlinger was pretty brutal. Three of the four memoirs, he said, didn’t need to be written.

Not only did I cringe for the three authors under attack; I took some of what he said personally. For starters, I’ve no doubt that Genzlinger would by bored to tears by my own book — a collection of personal essays celebrating ordinary family moments. And I suspect he’d advise me to discourage the students in my memoir classes to stop seeking publication.

Admittedly, some of Genzlinger’s observations are fair. Bookstore tables and shelves are stacked and stuffed with countless memoirs written by authors who’ve survived cancer, endured domestic violence, raised autistic children, lost spouses or pets, built their own houses, or moved to the country to “simplify” their long-suffering suburban lives. Genzlinger doubts that there’s anything new to add to the genre of personal experience.

If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already in it. Imitation runs rampant in memoir land.” – Neil Genzlinger

Does this really mean that the rest of us leading ordinary lives have no right to write and share our stories?

“If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead, hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life,” Genzlinger advised.

This flies in the face of nearly everything I’ve told my students — and it certainly doesn’t do much to dignify blogging, a favorite second cousin of memoir writing.

In my classes, the majority of new students worry about appearing arrogant when they start writing in the first person. More often than not, my biggest challenge is to assure them that we’ve all learned a thing or two from our experiences; that our stories are worth recording and sharing. So, maybe none of us will make the best-seller list. But I believe we deserve — at the very least — permission to share our history and life lessons with loved ones, if not a wider readership. What do you think? –CL

— “Writer” collage by Cindy La Ferle —

October Memories

October is a symphony of permanence and change.” — Bonaro W. Overstreet

The following short essay began as a journal entry after my father died. I recently rediscovered the notebook in which I’d written it longhand. First published in the October 1998 edition of Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, it’s also included in my book, Writing Home.

October Memories

Lately I’ve been thinking of these lines from Anne Mary Lawler’s poem about the seasons: October dresses in flame and gold, Like a woman afraid of growing old.

This is a potent month for memories. Yesterday I watched while my son and the children next door tumbled like acrobats in the fallen leaves. (Is there a kid in the Midwest who hasn’t done this?) And later in the evening, I sniffed the familiar aroma of wood-burning fires, another indisputable sign that winter is on its way.

For me, the smoky scents of October always evoke a favorite memory of my father raking leaves in the small backyard of our first home. The memory is more than three decades old, but it glows as vividly as the logs crackling in the grate tonight.

When I was growing up — before environmental laws — everyone in my neighborhood raked leaves into neat brown piles, then burned them near the curb or in backyard bonfires. Dry and brittle as bones, the leaves and twigs snapped furiously when introduced to a match. Back then, October weekends seemed to drift in mysterious clouds of gray-blue smoke — the perfect prelude to Houdinis Halloween.

Like most fathers, mine worked on weekdays, and often spent his weekends doing yard work. Long before the term “quality time” was coined by childcare experts, Dad would enlist my help raking leaves on Sunday after church. I offered very little assistance, preferring to toss his neatly piled leaves back into the air, or to roll in what remained of his handiwork. Regardless, he seemed to enjoy my reckless company — and I enjoyed the novelty of helping him. Unlike my mom, who would have seized the opportunity for “girl talk,” my dad didn’t always communicate with words. On those brisk autumn afternoons, with the sun glinting through bare branches of oak and maple, it was enough for us to be together. He raked, I rolled, and nothing of dire importance was ever said.

_______________

October weekends seemed to drift in mysterious clouds of gray-blue smoke — the perfect prelude to Houdinis Halloween.

_________________________

Still, young as I was, I felt the ancient ache and pull of October.

By then, I understood the seasons were cyclical; that the easy days of summer would return as surely as apples had ripened every fall. But I’d also begun to grasp the concept that time trudges ahead in a straight line, like it or not, ruffling the smooth texture of our days as it marches forward. I couldn’t have explained it quite this way, but suddenly I knew I’d have to “yield with a grace,” as Robert Frost once wrote, “the end of a love or a season.”

I recall watching my handsome young father in his plaid flannel shirt while he whistled and tended his banks of smoldering leaves, their acrid smoke filling my nostrils and forcing tears. I remember wishing that everything could stay the same — that I wouldn’t have to grow up or grow old; that autumn afternoons wouldn’t bleed to winter.

It was as if I had glimpsed the distant future and seen my father’s empty chair at our Thanksgiving table.

Of course, Dad had no idea that I had stumbled on a vast, disturbing truth and was forever changed by it. He worked contentedly, pausing only to watch me or to loosen the dried leaves from the long teeth of his rake. And that is the way I like to remember him:  arrested in time on that October afternoon, living in the moment, always whistling. — Cindy La Ferle

— Top photo of a maple tree in my Vinsetta Park neighborhood. (copyright Cindy La Ferle) —