Memoir is an often overlooked form of writing, mostly because people think that there is nothing special about their lives that is worth recording for posterity.
I belong to a small group that meets once a month at a local library to share written memories, and the reasons we have for our writing are as varied as the members themselves.
One writes because as a child she was curious about her great grandmother, and she wants any future great granddaughter to be able to know her — at least a little — through her writing.
Another does it as a break from business writing.
Another does it because she wants to make a book for her grandchildren.
Another does it because she has memories from infancy that she wants to share: she wants to let people know that it is possible to recall things that happened as an infant.
Me? I’m not really sure how I ended up in the group. I don’t have any children, so no grandchildren or anyone else to leave my ramblings to. (The group facilitator says it’s because I was sitting next to her when she brought it up and I didn’t say no.) But my reason for it is to help my other writing.
More on that later, though. First, let’s take a look at memoir writing in general.
Memoirs can be arranged either chronologically or by subject.
Granted, you probably aren’t going to be able to just sit down and write your entire life story in chronological order, but you can arrange the individual memories that way after they’re written. And if you go this route, you’ll likely find that some ages and dates are approximate, but they will get fine-tuned as you add to your life story. (I’ll bet that Scrivener would be great for that.)
I’ve never been good at keeping a journal — one of the things I really regret was never getting into the habit of keeping one. Doing memoir writing is sort of a way of making up for that, of pulling up memories and writing them down. They don’t have to be major earth-shattering events, just little day to day things. (It’s sort of like a belated journal – fitting, given my penchant for procrastination.)
That’s how mine are right now. I currently have them printed out and in manila folders, soon to be moved into a three ring binder with dividers. (No need for me to buy anything for that project – I have my own office supply store in my bedroom.) This is an infinitely flexible system. I can add and change categories as needed. My current categories are pets, my spiritual path, family stories, random childhood memories, and, of course, there is the infamous “miscellaneous” folder. (I live my life by the motto that “Everything can be filed under Miscellaneous.”) I might put them in chronological order someday, but for now, this works for me.
Now, you may be thinking, “She’s a novelist. What does memoir writing have to do with fiction?”
I’m glad you asked, because the answer is, “A lot, actually.”
Recording your memories — the things you did, the games you played, how you got to be who you are — these are all things that can enhance your writing by introducing details, descriptions, and even scenes and plots and characters.
For instance, one of my favorite places as a child was on a branch of the flowering crab apple tree in the back yard, especially in May when it was in full bloom and the air was heavy with the rich scent of the flowers and the buzzing of the bees, and a breeze would shake the pink/white petals into my hair.
Another favorite summertime thing was sitting on the back porch with a glass of ice water (in a huge red and white checked glass), some peppermint candy, and a book. I’d put a piece of candy in my mouth and take a drink of water — the cold of the water and the flavor of the peppermint exploding in my mouth into something sweeter and colder than either one alone. I remember reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that way, and that book is forever linked in my mind with a hot summer day and peppermint ice water.
Small details, but they bring a scene to life. A collection of them to fall back on, memories to easily recall, is one of the best things a writer can have. I can re-create (or re-invent) the character that was me in my younger days.
You are not just confined to your own memories: feel free to include family stories as well. My friend Ann, the coordinator of our Memoir Group, says that “memoir involves one’s subjective interpretation of her own life, which includes other people and events that had meaning for her. How it seemed to her, her own ‘spin.’”
For instance, my great grandfather on my father’s side delivered mail with a horse and buggy. There is still a law on the books in my hometown that “Neither Frank Wyant nor any other mailman shall race his horse down the main street.”
(I truly wish I had been able to know him better. My only memories of him are very vague – he doesn’t feel “real” to me in them. He does, however, sound like quite a character, and I love the stories I have heard about him – and his daughter-in-law (my maternal grandmother) who gave as good as she got – and then some! She, too, died before I could form any memories of her, so all I have are family stories, and with the passing of my father, most of those are gone as well.)
Memoir writing can also be a good free-writing exercise. Start with any memory, however vague or mundane, and get it down on paper. (Or in a world file.) Get the words flowing, write in the details that make the scene real.
And then transfer those details, those tiny little things that make it real, to your fiction.