When I first starting writing my memoir, I got caught up telling instead of showing my story. I waded in exposition that bored every tooth in my head, not to mention my eyelashes. In the past, I ran into boring exposition in other people’s memoirs too. Why do we equate memoir with boring story?
Well, I can think of two reasons: First, we’re afraid to include dialogue because we can’t remember the conversations we had with others verbatim. We’re afraid that someone will ring our neck and drag us into court if we put words in their mouths. Second, we worry that if we add an actual narrative with scenarios that include action along with dialogue that we entered the world of novel writing. But let me ask you this question. Do you really think that memoir authors such as Liz Gilbert remembered all her conversations as they were exactly spoken?
Now, there’s a huge difference between making things up and relying on memory to the best of our ability. The second scenario involves integrity and ethics because we’re trying to get it right to the best of our knowledge. The first scenario implies that we’re just making stuff up and placing words in other people’s mouths that we would have liked to have spoken. Wishful thinking does not equate an honest telling of the past. That lands in the fantasy realm.
The other thing I learned is to get all the anger, resentment and negative feelings out during the rough draft and a second draft if it is required. Then delve into a space of forgiveness and compassion for everyone involved in the story. While it’s still your story to tell and through your eyes and your memory, ask yourself what it would feel like to walk in the other people’s shoes. Psychoanalysis of others isn’t required and we’re best avoiding placing our memoir characters on the psychoanalysis couch. Also avoid the exposition that results from delving into someone else’ head space. Memoirs reflect our memories and our point-of-view which readers of this genre do get.
Avoid adding anything (especially that sounds bitter, self-pitying and resentful) to the story that actually doesn’t move the narrative forward. I cut out a lot of this type of writing from my first draft because I realized I was ranting and not sharing a cathartic story. I thought of readers wading through paragraphs, if not actual pages of me joining a pity festival. This pity party didn’t move my story forward and just made other people look like predators out to destroy me, which in reality wasn’t the case.
So we can write dialogue that comes from the best of our memory and we can write scenarios in the same way that we write fiction, but it’s stuff that actually happened in our lives. We also have the right to invent structure so we don’t have to tell our memoir chronologically, meaning we can step back and forth through time. In actuality, I have never met anyone with a linear mind. How often does your mind wander into the future or into the past? Try meditating and you’ll see what I mean?
Even Liz Gilbert with her carefully structured three-part memoir travels back to her past. Even when she’s in Italy and India, she’s still bringing her divorce and marriage from the past into the present. That’s the way our minds work, especially if we have undisciplined minds, which most of us do have. Besides, memoir is French for memory and memory doesn’t occur in the present moment. This means that we can play around with structure. I encourage you to watch movies with unusual structures or books told in fragments to inspire you about creating the structure for your memoir. I chose to tell parallel stories in mine so I have ten interludes about suffering from multiple chemical sensitivities interlaced with my housing quest in 2014.
The final element required for a memoir besides dialogue/scenarios and narrative structure is a voice. The best memoirs feature a strong voice whether that’s a wry and funny voice or a spiritually powerful one or a fragile voice of someone coming into their own and beginning to acknowledge his or her personal power, I guess the word I’m looking for is vulnerability. Once you have the dialogue/scenarios, structure and voice, the last selling and reading point is strong writing. Work on sentence structure by varying length of sentences, balance exposition (telling) with scenarios (showing) and give the reader a good reason to read your memoir when they have thousands of other books they could pick up and read.
I’ll share more of what I learn during my memoir-writing journey as I work on my revising this spring. If you would like a intuitive coaching session for writing or other creative projects, sign up for a session at Metaphysics for Everyday Living.