If you’re currently writing your memoir, maybe you’re having some of the same issues I am, so let’s commiserate for a moment on two key ones.
It’s inevitable. If you’re writing a memoir that’s remotely honest, you have to touch some stuff that’s quite icky. One tip I have for dealing with this ickiness is to first decide whether the icky topic is a main idea, or a supporting one. Right now, for instance, I’m trying to figure out how to deal with past boyfriends I’m not proud of—and in the least self- and sin-glorifying ways. Since my story is about recovery and rebirth, I’ve decided these guys are not THE story–but supporting actors who can help create backstory and a setup for the main show. For other memoirists who draw out the ickiness in excruciatingly gory detail (almost as if the authors enjoy remembering their lives in darkness), the descent into hell IS the story. Fair enough, except this doesn’t much help those of us going for a more uplifting effect.
Writing Scene Versus Exposition (Form)
Once we’ve decided what and how much of the gory past to include, we memoirists must also decide how to tell the various parts of our stories. Does that ex-boyfriend get a well-developed scene, complete with sensory details and lots of feeling, or should he get a passing glance, a quick summary, only enough to get us from point A to B?
In many memoirs I’ve read, authors choose to dwell on their descent into depression, addiction, and despair for most of their memoir…and only at the end do we get a glimpse—a chapter or two and/or an afterword at most, and that usually of drab summary—of the upswing.
So far, my strategy as a Christian/motivational writer is shaping up somewhat differently: I am leaning away from dwelling too, too much on the icky; and trying to trade chapters and chapters of the macabre for a couple well-placed, representative scenes. As Bill Roorbach says in his excellent book Writing Life Stories, “A good scene replaces pages and pages of explaining, of expositional excess, of telling. Instead of a passage about your family’s socioeconomic status, you show your dad pulling up in the brown Ford wagon, muffler dragging. Or does he pull up in a shiny Mercedes? Or does he walk up the hill with his jacket over his shoulder, car traded for shares in a new invention?” (pp. 35-36).
One caveat for me: I’m finding that there are certain parts of my past that I’m just so disgusted by, I cannot bring myself to honor them with fully-fledged scenes. For these moments, I think some succinct summary is sufficient. In contrast with other, better developed scenes, these sparse selections can make their own statement to the reader: This is a part of my past you have to know about, but I’m not proud of it. At least, that’s the message I’m hoping to send.
A Strategy for Separating Scenes—Writing the Hard Stuff
Not that I’m an expert by any stretch, but here is a suggestion that might be helpful—one that I am testing this very week.
If you kept a journal for those years you are currently memoir-izing, sit down in a good chair, at a sturdy table, and reread those journals, along with any pertinent letters or other artifacts, with a notepad handy. As you read, take notes on what’s there, so you can begin to separate out what is important from what’s not—as well as get an idea of the “arc of your story.”
For my own memoir, I’ve divided the ten years I’m writing about into seven sections—three of those focused mostly on the grime of the past, and four dedicated to climbing out.
I decided that each section needs to have an “arc of story”; and therefore, I need to get reacquainted with the key trajectory, and key moments, for each section. My memory is quite bad, so my journals are helping immensely here.
Yesterday, I sat down and reread the journals that would fall into my first section. I did not try to write any new scenes or develop any exposition during this time; I only took notes on each journal entry—a brief line or two to characterize what was going on in each. I highlighted the entries that seemed particularly important—either as potential scenes, or as “scenes” in and of themselves.
Note that I already have many pages of writing completed for all sections of my book—perhaps I even have most of the pertinent facts—but now I am going back to try to fill in any gaps I’ve left, and develop that which still needs developing.
Today, I’m going to look over the notes I took yesterday and answer some key questions:
- Where do I want this section of my memoir to start? On what scene, or using bit of exposition?
- Where do I want it to end? On what scene, or what bit of exposition?
- What key questions do I need to answer in this section? Or, what facts does my reader need during this section of the book?
- How will I do that? Or, which questions and facts should be answered with scene, and which should be answered by exposition?
- How will I order these scenes and snippets of exposition?
Once I have answered these questions, I can assign myself a list of scenes I still need to write up, and the sections of exposition that I’ve not yet covered. If I get stuck, because section one is turning out to be the grimiest, ickiest section of them all, I may hop over to section two for awhile, but now that I have a plan, I feel confident that I can do this…no matter how dirty the job.
Meanwhile, my writer friends, I’m curious to know: What’s tripping you up in your memoir? And what solutions are you finding?