Writing the Memoir–Selected Tips

They are admired, inspiring, and well-liked by many.

Memoirs of political figures, celebrities from performing arts, and notables from all walks of life. [And ordinary folks too.]

Popular and literary classics like Angela’s Ashes, The Year of Magical Thinking, Out of Africa, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and countless more. Do a search and you will easily find them.

Obviously, those who are famous can easily publish a bestseller. Some may need ghostwriters for the heavy lifting. Already successful authors need no help. For the rest of us, getting that story widely read is no small task. Fortunately for me, I don’t need to earn an income from book sales. Many more have read my memoir than reviews would suggest—which is true for many writers.

Why might you want to write one yourself? Why would anyone read it? Simply because it tells an inspiring story. An encouraging one. A narrative that recounts how you challenged and overcame a situation that others like you have faced. Written in a way that they can identify with.

How does that happen? A story that is as readable as the panoply of other books by the hitherto unknown? That’s up to your skills at revealing found truths. Relating your experiences to ones the reader, or someone close to them, has faced.

You already have some thoughts about that encouraging change in your life, right? Now you need to assemble them into a coherent story. You do that by employing what’s called creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction combines the truths of nonfiction with the style and elements of fiction. Things like character development. A story arc. Conflict—within oneself or with others. Creative nonfiction often includes literary motifs. It is employed in the personal essay and other genres beyond memoir. But we’re focusing on the memoir here.

NOTE: a memoir typically focuses on a limited time period in one’s life, as opposed to the full span of an autobiography. I’ll confess that my own memoir can arguably be called more of an autobiography for its expanded duration. There are reasons for that. I’ll explain later.

Here are some kernels for writing a memoir:

Tell the truth as best you know it. It’s your story — write it from your perspective. Inevitably, your life intertwines with others — family, friends, coworkers or bosses. You may recall conversations that depict issues you want to describe. Words spoken by others that reveal an impact on you. Events that make up a scene.

Can you recall the exact words spoken by you or another some decades ago? Maybe not. You do have a memory of their manner of speaking, their personality, etc. don’t you? It’s OK to fill in some dialogue and event details that you couldn’t possibly remember. But you must be authentic in how/what others (and you) would say in situations—that’s the truth required of you.

If you doubt that this is permissible, look at Angela’s Ashes—which takes place in Frank McCourt’s impoverished childhood. It won a Pulitzer. So yes, it’s OK. Just be real; if not, it’s just fiction, not a memoir.

Should you interview those others? If you wish, but that’s not necessary and may change your recollection. Once you put your memories down on paper—and especially if you begin editing them, those written memories may replace the ones in your head.

NOTE: Some people worry that they may embarrass others (or even risk a lawsuit) by how one characterizes them or what they said. That’s a possibility—so be careful. Fill in the blanks with what you reasonably believe is consistent and don’t depict them in an actionably bad light.

I took that risk, to a point, in Waiting for Westmoreland. I changed the names of some individuals involved. You can do that too. That’s not necessarily sufficient if people are still identifiable. If you’re writing about nuclear family members—that’s not possible at all. Your call.

I have vivid verbatim memories of oft-repeated phrases that appear in my book. You probably have some as well. I’ll share mine further along. Consider—peak events and tragic/painful ones are hard to forget. What you had for lunch last week is difficult to recall. So, unless a particular meal is critical, don’t worry about the menu. Know that you and your fellow characters had favorite foods—plug them in to set a scene, if necessary.

Do research to fill in the blanks and supply background of the times, places, etc. that feature in your book. This can make your memoir more relatable — especially if it forms part of the basis for your recollections. If it’s just background, Wikipedia or search engines may suffice; if the facts are critical, you need to dig deeper. Errors take away from the narrative.

Describe, as you would find in a novel, those moments/events that changed your life. Something challenged you. In creative nonfiction, characters have flaws. They overcame them. Your memoir should have a climax and a resolution. Your life has had them, has it not? That’s why you’re writing (or thinking about writing) that memoir.

Ideally, write a book that makes a difference without being too preachy. At the conclusion of this chapter is a reading list. On the list is Writing a Book that Makes a Difference, by Philip Gerard—that explains how to do that. It also works for fiction as well.

In some writing courses or books, you may have heard the admonition to “show, don’t tell.” So, it’s time for some examples of the techniques of creative nonfiction that I have mentioned here. I’ll take them from my own workWaiting for Westmoreland, the path from Vietnam to enlightenment.

A bit of foreshadowing, from the opening chapter. This about my childhood home:

Through trains rumbled by during the night, with steel wheels clicking and clacking on the rails and whistles sounding in advance of the grade crossing at Humboldt Avenue. I slept through the sound, growing accustomed to it much as I later would the sounds of distant artillery and helicopter gunship fire during Vietnam nights, waking only when the battle grew too near.

Setting the scene on my arrival in Vietnam in Chapter 5. This snippet illustrates how I chose (as you might, in your own life) to show mind-opening changes:

Tropical heat—asphalt-softening, frying eggs on a sidewalk heat—washed in like a sunny surf, carrying unfamiliar smells. . . . A throng of cheering khaki-clad soldiers in loose formation waved and beckoned to us from the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut. They laughed and shouted as kids on a playground, all the while looking about as secret service agents do during a presidential walk on a crowded street. A year later, I would better understand their uneasy excitement. Barring a last-minute attack, they had survived their year in Vietnam. They would fly back to ‘the world’ in the plane we exited.

After a night in Long Binh with other new arrivals, another soldier picked me up for the trip to Bearcat, the 9th Infantry Division basecamp—which our tiny artillery unit shared with them. This bit demonstrates changing names to protect the innocent or the guilty, as well as introduces the bane of my Vietnam existence:

Upon our arrival, much to my surprise, I immediately spotted Sam Jackson, my former radio school classmate. He had arrived two days ahead of me. He knew I was coming. From that knowledge, despite the friendship I thought we had, my problems in Vietnam began. The E-5 introduced me to Master Sergeant Seagram, Chief of the Communication Section. Seagram greeted me with what I would soon recognize as his trademark, bushy-mustachioed grin.

 

‘Jackson here says you were one of the best students in radio mechanic school.’

 

‘Well, I did OK,’ I said, unprepared to provide a more sensible answer. As it turned out, no answer would likely have sufficed to avoid the fallout from this.

 

‘No Sarge, he was really tops,’ Jackson helpfully added, in a respectful tone very different from the one I was accustomed to hearing from him when addressing white NCOs. Whether sincere or calculated as a setup, I soon learned it would be difficult to live up to Jackson’s buildup.

Why did I spend time sharing my childhood before getting on to Vietnam? How did that relate to an opening hook that my fiancée’s father might kill us if we married? Those are common developmental techniques in novels. The threat offered a frame that the story would return to as the resolution unfolded much later. The childhood chapters revealed character flaws. Flaws that the conflict with MSgt Seagram exposed. More I can’t say here, should you wish to read the book. But suffice it to say, there is a thread that connects all the events together. That’s why this book covers a much wider range of time than the “typical” memoir.

A couple more excerpts—the first highlights literary style; the second, an allusion to a classic, because it fit the triple entendre of the book’s title (Waiting for Westmoreland). The first comes from further on in Chapter 5:

Only a Salvador Dali painting could do justice to life at Bearcat. It was that surreal. Eating, sleeping, showering were all so different even from the austerities of military bases in America. Jungle foliage surrounded the hard-packed mud/dirt of the base camp, kept at bay only by tractor blades and defoliant. Much more peculiar was the human environment. These were people whose language and culture I did not understand—not the Vietnamese as much as my fellow soldiers. We were in a hostile, very foreign place, most of us for the first time in our young lives. Partially freed from the constraints of military discipline applicable on American soil and with drugs and alcohol readily available to assist, suppressed quirks and previously hidden subcultures came out in the open. Vietnam was a crucible, heating and compressing psyches. Necks got redder. Drawls got longer/slower. Moonshine making/drinking possum hunter/eaters were a puzzle to Down East lobstermen or Windy City slickers, and vice versa. Open discussions were mumbled in my midst about Toms, Jemimas and Oreos. My friend Jackson’s name never came up among the accused, despite his transformation.

From Chapter 8, slightly edited for length:

Despite my indiscretions, or perhaps because of them, going to church seemed like a good idea since Christmas was coming up soon.”

 

So, I went to the Protestant chapel where I waited and waited. Chaplain Vladimir kept conferring with his enlisted aide, spec-4 Estragon. They were stalling—5, 10, 15 minutes after Sunday services were supposed to have started. . . . Finally, as the chaplain’s face brightened, the reason for the delay became clear. Preceded by his junior officer flunky, General Westmoreland strode sharply into the back of the room, taking a seat in the last pew. After the services, the general shook hands with each of the departing soldiers, greeting them somewhat like a parent in the receiving line at a wedding, but even more like a politician at a campaign stop. As I approached and shook his hand, an aura of power seemed to emanate from him, as much as two or three inches from his crisply starched uniform. Startling as this was, it certainly was understandable. He was so important that God had to wait for him! After all, he was a man in charge of 500,000 American soldiers.

Your story will likely be far different than mine. Use whichever techniques fit the memoir you are writing. Your purpose may be cathartic. It may be informative. Whatever the point of your book, take the time to ensure that it expresses exactly what you want it to say.

Take some classes at a local community college or enroll in adult education if you need to develop more skills. Read some books like the ones I’ve listed below. Most of all, read some memoirs that may be somewhat like the one you are working on.

 

Here are snippets from my Goodreads reviews of these helpful books:

Writing a Book That Makes a Difference, by Philip Gerard. No instruction manual can really tell you how your book should be written. Many can arouse doubts in your mind about structure, organization and other aspects.  Nonetheless, it helped rather than hindered my choices. Only after reading many such books did the winnowing process of my own brain absorb a little from this and a little from that.

Writing the Memoir, by Judith Barrington. An excellent book answering FAQs that you didn’t know you had or if you did, you didn’t know how to ask them. As I was crafting my own memoir, this book helped guide me on the path.

Writing Creative Nonfiction, by Carolyn Forché. I found the instructions and insights illuminating, inspiring and confusing all at once. How to choose?! I felt like Alice on her journey after the rabbit. Still, it gave me plenty of techniques to consider–that would not have been as readily discernible had I simply tried to read every book of actual creative nonfiction I could get my hands on.

There are many more books on writing out there. Here’s a couple, the second of which is a memoir of sorts. Check out Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott (or anything else by her). Be surprised—read Stephen King’s On Writing, a memoir of the craft. No, he’s never won a Pulitzer or National Book Award—but don’t shirk his wisdom on technique. [NOTE: See a review of this book in the annual].

This article is reprinted with permission from an item written by the author and included in Deep, Down and Dirty Writing Secrets. The book is collaborative effort on writing tips by several other authors.

Cover of "Deep Down & Dirty Writing Secrets," edited by EJ RandolphHere’s a blurb for Deep, Down and Dirty Writing Secrets, available from Amazon on Kindle and paperback.

“Writing advice that gets you started and keeps you going. Wouldn’t you love to have authors reveal the secrets of their successes to you? You get that in this collection of essays, many by award-winning authors, and all of them fine practitioners of the craft. Their insights provide you with tools, tips, and encouragement for your own writing.

From our editorial reviews: “…splendid line-up of writers” and “from creating to editing, this book is an essential…”

This book is special. Other advice books focus on one topic. We cover multiple topics, many with the depth and breadth you normally find in stand-alone works. All incorporate the experience that will help you bridge the gap between theory and actual practice. They include references that widen the scope of the information. Sharpen your pencils, open your computers, or start your voice recorders because within these pages, you’ll find the kind of advice and encouragement you need.”

NOTE: The book recently won the prestigious 16th annual New Mexico/Arizona 2020 Book Awards for eBook nonfiction.

Here’s a review from Pete Springer, who received an advance review copy. Deep Down and Dirty Writing Secrets is a mishmash of writing ideas created by a group of writers from the American southwest. Each small chapter focuses on specific areas of writing. Some of the subjects I found the most helpful were Internal and External Dialogue by Catalina Claussen, and Finding Writing Success With a Series by Kris Neri, What’s This New-Fangled Deep POV by E.J. Randolph, in the area of fiction. Writing the Memoir by John Maberry, and The Joys and Stress of Collaborative Writing by Sharon G. Mijares are particularly interesting for non-fiction writers.

While many of the ideas I was familiar with, this helpful book takes a closer look than most traditional ‘How to Write’ books. The topics are well-organized, and each writer uses specific examples, often from their books, to demonstrate a point. It’s a quick read but packed with many useful ideas”

2 thoughts on “Writing the Memoir–Selected Tips

  1. Great recommends. I read them all except Gerard’s book which I’ve been trying to obtain a copy of from either Amazon (that doesn’t cost $100) or my local bookchain – to no avail, for a few years now. Excellent article and congrats on being part of the Down Dirty success! 🙂

    • John Maberry

      Thanks, Deb. Maybe a used book chain for Gerard’s? BTW: doing a test re: notifications–doing some on my site and some on the WP.com to see if it makes a difference.

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