We probably have a stereotypical image that comes to mind in response to the word ‘memoir’. A lady or gentleman from the world of Jane Austen sitting at their rosewood writing desk facing a window, that looks out over pastures of green, while they scratch out their inner musings on their noteworthy life full of lost loves, transient joys, trials and tribulations, using a quill pen with a stately longhand on parchment or paper.
But the genre of memoir is so much more exciting these days, full of creative play and freed from traditional constraints, as I discovered on my writing courses, so I thought I’d outline some of these freedoms to make the genre perhaps more appealing, which they did for me. After all, It’s pretty natural to write in the first person if the writer’s voice is the true ‘I’. This is a plus right from the start – you writing about you, echoing, in a more immediate way, how we think, feel and act as individuals, how we make our own history, what we personally remember, what we don’t. And many of the practical conventions for writing fiction also apply to memoir: research, fact, imagination, use of subconscious, the senses, symbols, dramatic dialogue and action, building characters, a sense of place, varied points of view, separate threads and thread woven together, narrative arcs, past and present tenses, contrasts and conflicts. I’ve noticed memoir being more prominent these days, with more magazines and competitions taking it on board…
So what exactly is memoir? – Well here is a nice definition from Wiki:
‘A memoir is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private, that took place in the subject’s life. The assertions made in the work are understood to be factual. While memoir has historically been defined as a subcategory of biography or autobiography…the genre is now differentiated in form, presenting a narrowed focus. A biography or autobiography tells the story “of a life”, while a memoir often tells “a story from a life”, such as touchstone events and turning points from the author’s life’.
So for our current purposes, let’s think of it as autobiographical writings treading a path between social history and personal reflection on a particular theme. And one key functional reason for doing this (as opposed to being a celebrity who has a ready-made readership to sell books to) can be to make the theme you write about of ‘universal’ appeal – that is of relevance to others, who may share your experiences, trials and tribulations, and who may gain some personal value from you writing about it, in that we all share a common humanity in our very nature, and love reading about other people’s lives for entertainment, enlightenment, for solace, and encouragement, or just for sheer fascination. This can include social commentary and themes of ‘rites of passage’ life events eg childhood, puberty, relationships and bereavement, which we all go through. In doing this we can also explore our own pasts which may shed light on our own lives today. So memoir can be a journey of self discovery and cathartic for the writer too.
This is a vast topic so I’ll just cover the points which excite me, and which I feel show the freedoms and values inherent in the genre:
1. As you recount scenes from the past, you can blend the voice of the adult you with the voice of the child/teenage you – they each have something to say, both separately and to each other, to make connections in the now, to show parallels, or to challenge each other ie the child may challenge to adult and vice versa.
2. After rightly and realistically, for the reader, acknowledging your memory gaps ( known as lacuna), you can infill with creative musings, what you imagine may have happened eg:Perhaps I; I may have; I must have; maybe I…all the way through the memory to …now I can see that, I could have, I should have…
And you can use fictional solutions which the reader can engage with. They know how this works, they do it with their own memory gaps, they can empathise.
3. You can write sketches about interesting family members who stood out for you for some reason. Maybe they had odd amusing idiosyncrasies or maybe they were always telling you social maxims and aphorisms from their ‘day’ which have stuck in your mind ever after. You’re writing their story, but you are in there too, observing them from the perspective you had at the time you knew them and from the perspective you have now, reflecting on them and their life events. This worked well for me with a memoir about an auntie who died when I was around ten years old. I called the piece ‘Our Lass’ because that is what her father used to call her. Through focusing upon her, I got to write about the American GIs coming to Britain, the dances, working at the local Coop, then her life as a married woman behind a counter in a grocery shop, where she felt confined. In writing the piece I was able to work through my feelings for her – she was the lovely auntie I had for far too short a time. Other sketches could be reflecting other family characters maybe from whom you learned some life lessons. Give them distinguishing features, characteristic actions, mannerisms and dialogue, a particular incident, and a history or back-story and setting.
4. You can put to use family letters that may have been kept, now fading away files. For example, there are letters which my mother has from a family clergyman in the late 1800s who emigrated to the United States, where he talks about his new parish. There are letters from a correspondence course which my grandmother engaged in to lose her stammer – it was her idea as a little girl, supported by her staunch Victorian father. She followed the instructions in these amazing (for their time) letters, spent hours on her own, practicing the exercises in her bedroom, and did indeed get rid of her stammer.
5. There are wonderful family photographs in fading sepia to trigger the imagination as you learn more about the era in the picture, more about that family member and how they played a part in your history. Or maybe there’s a treasured artefact that can function as the starting point for a memoir eg my grandfather kept a tartan box, inside which were newspaper cuttings from the personal columns – birth and death notifications are amongst them and they still lie in that box today.
6. You can exploit the fact that there are always ‘different versions of a life’. Eg What my sister remembers about that family driving holiday up into the highlands and islands is not how I remember it (I remember the landscapes, she remembers being bored rigid) and this especially applies to dramatic events. We remember differently. We edit what we remember to paper over the perceived cracks, or to crack them open wider, to remember the joys or the sorrows, depending on why we are triggering that memory. In short, we edit our own history and looking at how and why can be fascinating.
7. You can build a collection of memoirs and gather them into a collection, making sure you have a common thread running through to tie them together. This may be a place , a particular time, an object or symbol, a shared goal or ideal…just something to bind them to one another.
8. Since memory by its very nature is a form of fiction making, you can use fiction with dialogues that may have taken place or of which you only remember scraps. Obviously you can’t actually remember whole conversations, but you’re allowed to be creative about these. Yes, you are! Just don’t go overboard, keep them short, otherwise the reader will start to question it. You can admit you don’t remember the conversation exactly, but you think it went a little like this…
9. You can flesh out your memoir with some wider social context, meaning you can get stuck into some social history. You can narrate your own investigations. What was going on culturally at the time eg TV, film, music, books, politics, working life, social values. You can ‘interview’ and mine the memory of relevant living relatives you have in connection with your topic. You can visit locations – that hilltop farm in Yorkshire, that seaside town, to bring the past alive for yourself and your writing. You can cross reference eras and generations within your memoir/s
10. You can use your own ‘stabilising’ point of view and interweave this with the viewpoints of other family members – let them have a say, while showing the complexity of relationships, life conflicts and motivations. If you don’t know their motivations etc, you can surmise, imagine or project these onto them. You can draw upon your own fantasies.
11.You can explore the distance between how you remembered something/someone and compare this to reality
12. Make sure the tone of the memoir isn’t too maudlin and sentimental. Make it about interesting reflective enlightenment rather than overt nostalgia, to keep the universal appeal going.
Here are some essential tips for writing memoir from Lewis Editorial, a great blog for writers, which capture it beautifully for me:
Narrow your focus – focus in on particular periods in your life, or a shared theme
Be honest – the reader loves genuine sharing of flaws, mistakes
Show – don’t tell (as usual)
Think of it as fiction – so we still have story arcs, characters, events making up a plot
Think about who you are writing it for to help focus it
Don’t lose your own voice – this is your story, let the reader get to know you
Just one important consideration You may like to change the names of family ‘characters’ to protect privacy, if they are still living. If you do, change the name of the person right at the end of your writing and editing, so you are relating to that very real person throughout your writing. But don’t let this aspect put you off.
And finally some quotes from an article on memoir craft which I printed off some years ago, by writer, Lopa Banerjee:
On Memoir writing she says:
‘There is the development of a healthy emotional and intellectual curiosity that builds up while the writer narrates his life story.’
‘What makes memoir writing a distinct piece of creative non-fiction is that through the journey of narrating his/her personal experiences, the author tries to reach out to a universal perspective (…) it is the intriguing combination of the rumination, the lyrical impression, and the sheer beauty of the language with which stray facts are woven into the texture of the memoir that makes it a delightful and moving form of literature.’
(picture courtesy of pixabay)