Writing Memoir

Wait! Before you click off ’cause maybe you aren’t interested in this topic, read this:

If you are NOT a subscriber yet over at FrostProof808.com and if you ARE a writer, you want to do yourself a favor and stop over there to read yesterday’s post. I think you’ll enjoy it. (grin)

Okay, now go ahead and read about Writing Memoir, below.

Hi Folks,

I’m pretty sure a lot of folks who read my blog are interested in writing memoir. This is not a how-to. This is a Go Ahead If You Want To post. Here, I’ll explain some things I think you might find helpful.

I often hear from folks who are considering writing a memoir, but wonder whether anyone other than their family will want to read it. They say things like, “My life just isn’t all that interesting, y’know?”

I always respond the same way. Your life is unique. You are a character on the world stage, and almost everyone is interested. Ever notice how much more interesting a famous sports figure or celebrity or Joe Schmuckatelly down the street becomes when you find out something unique about him? So if you’re considering writing a memoir, stop considering and start writing.

Consider this: Say a person lived his entire life in one room of a basement. He never went out, never saw anything but the basement walls. Aside from the sheer horror of that thought, this person might be said to have lived the most boring life ever. Now, given that, if that same person managed to write a memoir of his life in that basement, would you pay to read it? I would.

A few years ago a correspondent asked whether I’d written a  post about writing memoir. Specifically, she wanted to know whether it was all right to use the techniques of fiction while writing her own memoir.

Here’s my response:

Most of my blog posts pertain to writing in general, and therefore pertain as well to writing memoir. For example, the use of various types of punctuation, quotation marks, paragraphing, using strong action verbs rather than state-of-being verbs when possible, the difference between active and passive voice (don’t let the narrator use the “sense” verbs), etc.

But to answer your question specifically, memoir is MUCH more similar to fiction than dissimilar. Consider…

  • Fiction is how the writer remembers something that hasn’t happened yet. Memoir is how the writer remembers something that did happen. If different people write a memoir about the same event, each telling will be different.
  • Fiction is told from a particular point of view (usually the narrator), and memoir is told from a particular point of view, again, usually the narrator.

But what about using dialogue in memoir?

The writer was concerned that she couldn’t accurately quote dialogue unless perhaps she had recorded the dialogue of the day in her journals, or unless she could remember specifically what was said.

Another memoirist for whom I was editing awhile back had told me I absolutely was not allowed to “adjust” any of the dialogue she wrote down because “it’s written exactly as it was said.” I told her and the current correspondent the same thing:

Actually, you wrote the dialogue exactly as you remembered it was said, and we often hear things differently than they’re actually said. In other words, it’s simply dialogue. And as dialogue it serves more than one purpose.

Although certainly it’s meant to convey an accurate record of what was said, dialogue between characters (yes, even in memoir) immediately makes the reader lean in to the story, as if he’s eavesdropping. It forces the reader to be immediately engaged in the story, invested in it. And again, the dialogue doesn’t have to be exactly what was said word for word. After all, you aren’t transcribing for a court of law. (Yeah, as if THAT isn’t fiction.)

So how does a memoirist handle dialogue? Of course, you don’t want to tell outright lies in your memoir, but many memoirists take certain literary liberties when they encounter “missing” gaps even when they’re writing based on someone’s diary.

When you’re writing based only on your journals or your memory, shouldn’t you also feel free to fill in the gaps with literary license? And if that holds true for narrative, it holds true for dialogue as well.

In memoir, as in fiction, dialogue must be smoothed out so it both engages the reader and helps the reader through the story. What dialogue does have to be is interesting, and that isn’t hard to do. For the reader, it’s immediately interesting simply because it’s dialogue, a direct communication from the character to the “eavesdropping” reader.

As you write dialogue in your memoir, look at yourself as a translator. You’re translating the Spirit of the conversation, the essence, not the exact words. You’re getting your story out there, and that’s what matters.

And it really does matter. As a dear friend, Marilyn Pate, wrote about memoir, “Your story is unique. It is the treasure you take with you when you pass away unless it is written or recorded.”

Don’t take your stories with you. Write it down, at least for your children and grandchildren.

If you’re an aspiring memoirist, I have the same top two bits of advice for you that I have for all writers:

  1. Start writing.
  2. Don’t stop.

‘Til next time, happy writing.


Note: If you find something of value in these posts or on this website, consider dropping a tip into Harvey’s Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, Thanks! If you can’t make a monetary donation, please at least consider forwarding this post to a friend or several. Again, thank you.

6 thoughts on “Writing Memoir”

  1. Thanks for this one. Too many people stop writing because they can’t remember exactly what happened or what was said.
    To me, memoir is one example of creative (thought not TOO creative) nonfiction.

    • You’re welcome, Emilie. That’s kind of the whole point. If you have two people remembering the same event or even conversation, they’ll remember it differently.

  2. I was of the “if you make it up, it’s fiction” school of thought until relatively recently.
    Actually, I still am but not so much.
    Now, when writing non-fiction, I just say to myself that if it is a reasonable and rational representation of what most likely happened or would have been said in that situation, it is a valid literary device.
    Obviously, honesty is paramount.
    I second the previous comment. Thanks for this one, Harvey.

Comments are closed.