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?


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