Recently personal writing, especially the memoir, has become extremely popular, both to write and to read. You might associate memoirs with famous people, but ordinary folks too are picking up their pens and trying to recreate their memories on paper. Whether they’re scribbling their life stories on random sheets of loose-leaf or typing their impressions into the latest laptop, people everywhere are trying to capture their past through memoir writing. Memoirs differ from autobiography in that autobiography seeks to present a complete picture of an individual’s life, from the time that they are born to the time that they sit down to write the autobiography itself. Another distinguishing characteristic of the memoir is that it uses a narrative voice that reveals personality and style. Memoirs are not a random collection of events or a birth to death story. Memoirs are literary nonfiction and employ literary techniques: they are focused on a particular theme; they recreate scenes vividly; they use narrative.
Voice and Storytelling
If you’re interested in writing a memoir, first work on your voice. A voice is memorable, lingers in the reader’s mind, and is distinguishable. Memoir writers also have to be adept storytellers. The memoir explores a theme or aspect of the person’s life in depth. This is what distinguishes it from an autobiography which is more of a collection of facts.
The most important thing about a memoir is that it tells a good story. So you’re actually combining aspects of fiction and essay BUT you’re not fictionalizing, or making up facts. The events you’re describing really happened. You can’t write about your life and tell lies, but you can add elements of fiction to your memoirs to turn them into good stories. Memoir, of course, is based on the memory of events and people who are real. However, a great memoir borrows fictional techniques and structures such as characterization, dialogue, narrative pacing, imagery, figurative language, symbolism and theme.
Where to Start
Everyone’s life is somehow unique, even extraordinary. So we can all mine our memories for stories from our past or describe issues in our present life. The key of course (and this is the hard part) is to find the remarkable memories or experiences that exist among our ordinary details and memories. Strive for a balance of emotions: the witty with the gritty, the pain and the forgiveness. You have to keep asking yourself: What does my memory mean? Why is the memory important?
Even if you have a great memory the best memoirs require research. Talk to your family members about their memories. Look at old photos. Strong details help to give your reader a sense that these things really happened.
To make your memoirs interesting for others to read, follow these guidelines:
â€¢ Write about family life, relationships, interesting or unique experiences. Travel can be a good source for stories.
â€¢ Try to write in the present tense: recreate the memory as if itâ€™s happening for the first time.
â€¢ Use the five senses in your descriptions, so the reader can see, hear, smell, taste and touch the scene. You remember what it was like; your challenge is to recreate that scene in your reader’s mind. Use only details that are relevant and elevate your story.
â€¢ Use dialogue and describe your characters’ personalities, appearance and actions. Remember that you, too, are a character, so be sure to give a sense of your own physical presence.
â€¢ Imagine a reader who knows nothing about you, your family, or your geographic area. Pretend that you are explaining your story to that person so that you add essential background.
â€¢ Choose a variety of situations so that you reveal the theme in a rounded way. We’re not always crying or laughing. Sometimes the most poignant memoirs are about the less dramatic events in our lives.
â€¢ Use understatement.
â€¢ Edit and revise! Make sure that you proofread. Cut out unnecessary scenes or narration.