Memoir Makes It Better

5 ways practicing memoir will improve both writer and writing.

There is fiction, and there is nonfiction; then somewhere in between lies memoir, their mutant spawn.

The last decade or so has been a heyday of sorts for memoir. Much of what makes the genre appealing to readers is that it combines the artfulness of fiction with the real-life validity of non-fiction. It’s the refined, literary version of reality TV.

But what appeals to memoir readers is often the same thing that confounds memoir writers. To piece together a good memoir, the tenets of fiction must be employed within the constraints of non-fiction. Likewise, the aims of non-fiction must be achieved through elements of fiction.

Still, this blurring of lines is precisely what makes memoir a worthy and worthwhile effort for any writer. Here are a few of the lessons you might find yourself picking up in the practice:

1. You Aren’t So Wonderful

In a world of bad characters and good ones, most of us would seat ourselves in the “good” group. But memoir might suggest we are being too generous in this. Try turning yourself into a protagonist: take a recent conflict in your life and record what your thoughts, actions, and interactions were in it. Leave out your motives and intentions, and instead write what actually happened. How did you respond when given a backhanded compliment, when annoyed in the check-out lane, when cut off in traffic, when insulted or demoted or hurt? Write it honestly.

I thought of myself as a capable and accomplished person, more or less—a kind one too, until I had to become a character in my memoir. The character-me was not nearly so magnanimous as the “me” that I had perceived myself to be. Seeing my unedited self on paper was startling. There was far more sin and selfishness than I would’ve been willing to admit. But that awareness made me better: more repentant, less proud, more forgiving, less afraid of making mistakes. I became newly grateful for what I have been given because I could see like never before that I don’t deserve it. And grateful is a great place from which any writer can start.

2. Characters are Complicated

Walk a mile in somebody’s shoes, as the saying goes. Real people have real complexities; this is impossible to ignore when writing memoir because the subjects you’re writing about are displaying their complexities all the time, from head to toe. Let this be a lesson. The people in your stories will be stronger subjects if you’re willing to appreciate nuance and even paradox in them. That means creating/presenting subjects who have dimension: likeable and unlikeable qualities, consistencies and inconsistencies, weaknesses and strengths alike.

3. Story Is Good

Setting, plot, characters, conflict, rising action, falling action, dialogue. Fiction writers tend to be experienced in weaving together these elements in their writing, while many non-fiction writers spend little time developing their story muscle. The result is often a non-fiction writer with a profound writing weakness: four parts tell for every one part show. Take a crack at memoir, and you’ll see that story can make a point on its own. Events and truths don’t necessarily require further explanation from an omniscient author voice. When the story you’re telling is complete, resolution is already there.

4. Reality is Simple

To keep things fair, here’s one for the fiction folks. You have zero limitations on the creativity you can bring to your story lines, which is likely why the rest of us so thoroughly enjoy your work. But memoir can remind you that most happenings in life are not extraordinary, at least not at first glance. While it can be tempting to rely on spectacular details to move your story along, often that’s an easy way out. It might take more effort and more practice in writing to instead craft a more plausible storyline that has every bit as much resonance.

5. “Interesting” is Necessary

But it should also be said that spectacular things resonate spectacularly. Few people will want to read your work if nothing in it drums up any interest. Far too often we let ourselves settle for an existence that is boring and wimpy. Ask yourself: In the last year, have I changed? Have I pursued something? Have I discovered something? Have I been part of something that matters?

We are creatures made in the image of a bold, reckless, zealous God, the One whose story grips people and sets their lives on an entirely new course. If there is nothing in your life that seems worth writing about, let memoir be an alarm that wakes you up to live bravely. Chase after something. Commit to something. Let go of something. Be moved to action. Give generously. Receive graciously. Love with tenacity. Or write some memoir, if you dare.

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11 thoughts on “Memoir Makes It Better

  1. Lisa, your post resonates with me as I have been contemplating memoir but hesitate because I’m not sure if my life has been spectacular enough. The parts that are pretty interesting give me goose bumps when I think of telling those details to the world, both for myself and also for my friends and family, whose secrets I would be telling. How do you deal with that?

    • Hey Elaine! A tough question, but one that has to be dealt with when you’re writing memoir. Here are a couple thoughts.

      First, it’s common practice in memoir to change details in order to conceal others’ identities. This can be done somewhat easily and with integrity, but it requires giving yourself the license to do it. In my memoir Craving Grace, I concealed identities for every person who could’ve been seen in a negative light and hadn’t consented to being mentioned in the book. That helped bring peace of mind, and also eliminated the chance for taking cheap shots at those who played antagonistic roles in the story. Operating in this arena is tricky, though: it’s important that the details be changed ONLY to conceal identities. Beware embellishment—it’s the fine line between memoir and fiction.

      Second, if you’re going to write about your life, the process will likely require that you have a tough conversation with other parties who commonly show up in the story. The people in your memoir are real people, and unless you’re going to give them the chance to edit the manuscript, it’s a good idea to err on the side of kindness and caution. Send out drafts and invite feedback—this process alone will likely curb your writing and help you develop a more empathetic heart and voice. These two aspects of authorship are always invaluable, but with memoir they also serve a distinct technical purpose. The focus of a memoir should be the protagonist. In learning to treat all other characters fairly, you’re better amplifying the protagonist and you’re writing a better memoir.

      Does that answer your question?

  2. Hey Elaine! A tough question, but one that has to be dealt with when you’re writing memoir. Here are a couple thoughts.

    First, it’s common practice in memoir to change details in order to conceal others’ identities. This can be done somewhat easily and with integrity, but it requires giving yourself the license to do it. In my memoir Craving Grace, I concealed identities for every person who could’ve been seen in a negative light and hadn’t consented to being mentioned in the book. That helped bring peace of mind, and also eliminated the chance for taking cheap shots at those who played antagonistic roles in the story. Operating in this arena is tricky, though: it’s important that the details be changed ONLY to conceal identities. Beware embellishment—it’s the fine line between memoir and fiction.

    Second, if you’re going to write about your life, the process will likely require that you have a tough conversation with other parties who commonly show up in the story. The people in your memoir are real people, and unless you’re going to give them the chance to edit the manuscript, it’s a good idea to err on the side of kindness and caution. Send out drafts and invite feedback—this process alone will likely curb your writing and help you develop a more empathetic heart and voice. These two aspects of authorship are always invaluable, but with memoir they also serve a distinct technical purpose. The focus of a memoir should be the protagonist. In learning to treat all other characters fairly, you’re better amplifying the protagonist and you’re writing a better memoir.

    Does that answer your question?

  3. I’ve written my memoir and am in the process of getting it published. I kept most of the identifying details of others to a minimum, focusing instead on what they said and did that affected me, the protagonist. I was also very honest about my own errors, keeping watch that I didn’t let the blame game get hold of me. No one wants to read that.

    I really like what you said here: “Take a crack at memoir, and you’ll see that story can make a point on its own. Events and truths don’t necessarily require further explanation from an omniscient author voice. When the story you’re telling is complete, resolution is already there.”
    I so totally agree with this! Let the story play out in gentle helpings. Allow the reader digest it and glean the message. Force feeding can be really condescending.

    Great post!

    • Thanks, Grace. I like your approach. All the best to you as your memoir continues down the publishing road!

    • Somebody should be putting this on a t-shirt and selling it! I also love this message.

      • Thanks, ladies. Glad to hear it connects. Jan, the T-shirt licensing is all yours. 🙂

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