Memoir Writing: Scene, Summary, and Musing

Photo/KarenJordanWhat is a memoir? “I had to look up the definition of a memoir before I wrote my entry for this contest,” one writer confessed to me.

“Congratulations!” I responded, acknowledging her award.

This writer’s research paid off. Plus, she chose an inspiring, true story from her life, and she engaged her readers with a meaningful message using creative nonfiction techniques.

Being a judge of the contest entries, I also noticed that some of the other aspiring and experienced writers needed to do a little research before they wrote a memoir. So, I’m sharing here some of what I’ve learned as a memoirist.

My road to memoir writing started with enrolling in a class on writing for publication while in college. But I really didn’t hear the term “memoir” much until I took nonfiction writing classes a decade later.

One of my favorite professors at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Dr. Sally Crisp, recommended a very helpful book on that subject by another writing teacher, Judith Barrington. Barrington describes her book, Memoir Writing, as a “practical guide to the craft, the personal challenges, and ethical dilemmas of writing your true stories.”

Defining memoir. Since I’m knee-deep in writing a memoir with my daughter Tara, I needed a refresher course. Here’s my own memoir checklist.

  • Focused theme or topic. William Zinsser discusses the memoir in his book On Writing Well. “Memoir isn’t the summary of a life (like autobiography); it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition” (136).
  • Narrative. Memoir tells a story about certain people, places, or events from the writer’s personal life.
  • Reflection. The writer’s thoughts and beliefs about the events are a vital part of  the memoir.
  • Conversation. The narrative voice reflects on her thoughts and feelings in an intimate, conversational, and honest manner.

Creative NonfictionThe memoir tells true stories using creative nonfiction techniques.

  • Contains all the elements of fiction.
  • Moves back and forth in time.
  • Requires believable dialogue, based on truth.
  • Switches from scene to summary to musing.

Photo/KarenJordanScene, Summary, and Musing. Musing takes a vital role in the memoir. But scene and summary provide two useful ways to move through the narrative.

Judith Barrington describes the memoir’s characteristics of scene and summary in cinematic terms. I’ve often used photographic terms to describe the editing process.

  • Summary. Here the writer focuses on the panoramic view. This may include numerous details, but examines the person, place, or event from a distance. For this viewpoint, I imagine myself taking a photo of a sunset or sunrise over a lake with my long-distance camera lens.
  • Photo/KarenJordanScene. For this macroscopic view, you zoom in for a closer look at your story and focus on a particular point of view or incident. Consider using some dialogue to illustrate your scene or another descriptive device to describe an intimate detail of that moment. In photography, I change my lens and focus for a closer view of a child or the reflection over the lake.
  • Musing. I visualize this characteristic of a memoir as the microscopic view, zooming in on the writer’s intimate feelings and thoughts. The reflective voice of the writer expresses her feelings and thoughts at the time of the event. She might choose to express her current understanding or the wisdom that she gleaned from her personal experience. For instance, I love to capture the memories by the lake close to my home–the awesome sunrises and the poignant moments with my grandkids. It reminds me to record the stories that matter most to me as a gift for the next generation.

Storytelling. In memoir, the writer tells a true story from her life, using her best creative nonfiction skills. As you examine your memoir for revisions, focus on your areas of strength and weakness. Do you tend to focus on summarizing your story rather than zooming in on some important scenes? Have you reflected on what a certain person or event means to you or what you’ve learned from this experience?

I challenge you to work on the weaker elements of your memoir. Your story will become stronger and even more meaningful, as you examine your scene, summary, and musing.


What helpful insights could you offer about memoir writing?



14 Replies to “Memoir Writing: Scene, Summary, and Musing”

  1. Karen, as a fellow memoirist I want to congratulate you on a super job of distilling an overwhelming genre into a helpful, accurate post. As I’ve worked with students and writing clients over the years, I find many confuse memoir with autobiography, and want to tell the entire story of their lives. It’s difficult to discover that single overarching theme that unifies the relevant portions of your life you wish to share, yet that’s the very key. Don’t write it all. But what you choose to write from, write from it as deeply and truly as you can . Thanks so much Karen!

    1. Thanks so much, Leslie! Judith Barrington’s book helped me a lot in this area, especially her chapter, “Scene, Summary, and Musing.” So, I just shared a little of what I gleaned from that book and other sources. I hope this helps other writers as well.

  2. I’m working on my memoir – have been for years. Studying fiction writing also helps my memoir. For me, I’ve had to write it in layers – sometimes the events, then deepen the events into scenes, then add emotions. Bit by bit it is improving. You are right, one needs a focus for a memoir. While mine covers many years, the main theme is that healing from incest and abuse is possible. The first time I tried to write my story, twenty-five years ago, I was bleeding all over the page. It took many years of coming to terms with my past and healing before I could objectively write it. Now, I have to remind myself of the feelings, but the feelings do not overwhelm my memoir. Thanks for this good post. I’m saving it for future reference.

    1. I totally understand the “bleeding all over the page,” Heather! I pray that healing will come as you write your story. That’s an important factor in memoir writing, too. I’ll post some of my thoughts on that subject soon-good idea! Blessings to you as you write and heal!

  3. Good post. I’d like to recommend the craft book on memoir I found to be the best–Tristine Rainier’s YOUR LIFE AS STORY. Brilliant book and I recommend it to my fiction students as well.

    1. Thanks, Les! And I’ll check that book out soon. Btw, I’m SO grateful for all of my fiction instructors, too! I hope to dabble in that genre again soon. In fact, I need to turn some of my nonfiction into fiction before I expose some of my stories to the public! ;0

  4. What a helpful post, Karen. I agree with Lesley, you distilled a mysterious genre into a definable process. Can’t wait to read your memoir when you and Tara get it published. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Anita! I’ve never written a memoir with anyone before; so that’s a bit challenging. We’re both seeing that particular story from a different perspective as we write it together. And I must admit that some of the details can be hard to swallow at times–“bleeding on the page,” as Heather (above) described so well ! Gulp! Tara says that she doesn’t think I liked her as a teenager very much, but I KNEW that she didn’t like me! Amazing that we’re best friends now!

  5. Another agreement with Lesley on distilling this into an extremely usable resource. I’ve been studying memoir writing technique not for myself, but, oddly enough, for a character in a novel. I’m writing a book within a book, in a way (in small doses). Though it’s a fictional character, I want the memoir to bring the reader closer to the character through it, and be touched by the story he has to tell as if it were a real memoir. This is by far the clearest, most helpful instruction I’ve found. Who knows, I may end up writing my own memoir one day. Thanks so much for this!

    1. I commend you on the “book within a book” challenge–what a great spin to your story! And I understand the delay in writing some of your own stories, too. One particular story from my own life comes to mind that I need to write some day. But I haven’t been ready to go there yet–maybe one day. But I know that if I write it, healing will come.

  6. This column goes in my reference file, Karen. It has come at an opportune moment for me as I am near completing the first draft of my first memoir. Your use of the photographic terms for the process is easy to understand and very helpful. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. I’m honored to make your reference file, Jan! Sweet!!! Btw, I like that camera visual, too. It’s helped me with all of my writing and re-writing; so, I love to share it with other writers. I’m so grateful that we have this venue to share our helpful writing tips, aren’t you? Can’t wait to read your first memoir!

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