Guest Post: Al Watt

EIGHT THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN WRITING MEMOIRS 

allwattsThe challenge in writing a memoir is that self-examination is not typically meant to be shared. The goal in writing a dynamic memoir lies in offering a transformative experience for our protagonist (our self) by making the personal universal. We all have the story that we tell, either to our self or others, and although the facts may be indisputable, our perception of these facts is subjective. How we interpret the facts determines the meaning we make out of the events, and commonly our idea of our story is never the whole story. Though our ideas are never incorrect, they are often incomplete.
So, how do we write our memoir if we don’t know the whole story? By trusting our subconscious. Our subconscious is the seat of our genius. It is able to make connections and uncover meaning in areas we might never have explored. Our subconscious is not interested in protecting our ego. It wants the truth.

1)  Begin with the end in mind. I’ve heard writers say, ”How can I write my ending when I’m still living my life?” The ending of your memoir is not the end of your life (though it might feel like that.) It is the completion of a theme.
2)  A memoir is not a journal. Material from your journal might find its way into your memoir, however, a memoir is written from a place of understanding while a journal is an attempt to understand. The memoirist is the wise man or woman on the hill recounting the significant moments of their life in order to illuminate this journey toward transformation (a shift in perception).
3)  Don’t think that because your mother still drives you nuts that you have not had a shift in perception. Even though it still annoys you when she tells you how to live your life, this does not disqualify you from writing your memoir. A shift in perception does not mean that we are forever liberated from anxiety and self-doubt. These are human experiences. Our shift in perception simply means that we now understand our situation more clearly, and we know that when we expect our mother to mind her own business, we will be let down. In other words, we have accepted the reality of our situation, and in doing so, our life has become manageable.
4)  Memoir is a search for meaning. When you recount the argument that you had with your spouse about how you wanted a kid but they didn’t, be curious about why you are telling us this. What is the argument really about? What is it that you want? What does having a kid represent? Does it represent security, identity, validation, purpose, power, fulfillment? Always be asking yourself, “What am I trying to express through this scene?”
5)  Context: Don’t assume that your reader understands the context. We’re not interested in what happened, but in what it means to you. Have you ever had someone tell you a story and you still had no idea what they were trying to say. For example, if someone says, “My wife told me she wants a divorce,” we still don’t know what it means. It could be devastating, comical or a relief to the husband. Without context we have no idea what you’re talking about. As storytellers we must be curious not only about the events we are relaying, but the underlying meaning of these events.
6)  Order of events: It is not just the stories that we tell, but the order of events in which they are told, that convey meaning.
7)  Our protagonist must be active. I don’t mean that she does Pilates, but that he or she is always making choices. As writers we tend to be passive observers, and there can be a tendency, particularly in memoir, to have a reactive protagonist – one who merely reacts to each event. You might say, “But that is what happened.” No. That is only what appeared to happen. We are always making choices toward getting what we want. Staying in a lousy marriage is a choice. Remaining silent is a choice. Don’t confuse inertia with passivity. We are interested in your inner life. What is going on? For example: Let’s say I tell a story about my piano teacher who repeatedly told me that I had two left hands, and I remained silent each time he insulted me. The first time I might choose to believe him. The second time I might congratulate myself for my improvement, and the next time I might find a teacher who supports me in learning this new skill. So, although Iappeared passive, the meaning shifted with each insult, which finally led to a new behavior. In other words, our choices indicate our characters’ wants or desires — and that provides our story with meaning.  Make your protagonist active so that we understand what he or she wants.
8)  Feelings: Writing a memoir often brings up feelings of guilt, shame and betrayal. After all, we are opening the closet and exposing the skeletons. It is important to write the first draft for yourself. Do not show it to anyone, at least not while you are writing it. You will often discover that as you write it, you begin to see your story differently. Your perspective widens. The events don’t change, but your relationship to these events shifts. You might fear that if you expose the truth, that you will discover something terrible about yourself. You might. But here’s the thing: The answer is always love. The answer is always freedom. The answer is always forgiveness. In writing a story about freedom, we must show bondage. In writing a story about love, we must show fear. In writing a story about forgiveness, we must show resentment. It is important to hold onto your ending as you march through the middle, otherwise you can become lost in the feelings and they will overpower you.

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