5 tips for a memorable memoir

We had a number of memoirists in our workshops this spring so we thought we’d put together some tips that work just as well for memoir as for fiction.

  1. Think of your narrator as a character separate from yourself. This is probably the single most valuable tip we have to offer fiction and nonfiction writers alike. Even if you’re writing a memoir, thinking of your narrator as a separate character—sure, one who still looks like you, talks like you and acts like you—will give you that little bit of mental distance you need to take the raw material of your life and turn it into something others will find pleasure in.
  2. Start with a scene. There’s nothing like plopping readers into the middle of the action to get them hooked. Don’t feel like you need to provide a lot of background or explanation up front. If it’s a well-written scene, readers will roll with it even if they’re not clear on the bigger picture. Of course, not any old scene will do. You want one that is significant for your narrator (see what we did there, memoirists?) and that has a bit of drama to it. For a great example, check out Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.
  3. Substitute a “you” for the “I” to invite readers to share in a specific experience. While we wouldn’t recommend trying to sustain it for the length of an entire book, for shorter pieces or for a moment within a longer work, using a “you” can be an effective way to put your reader in your main character’s shoes. Take Maile Meloy’s story “Ranch Girl”, which we studied in our spring level II workshop. Here’s an excerpt from the story in The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction: “No one from school ever visits the ranch, so you can keep your room the way you decorated it at ten: a pink comforter, horse posters on the walls, plastic horse models on the shelves.” Interestingly, in the original version published in The New Yorker, Meloy used “you” only in the first paragraph, then she switched to a third person narrator: “No one from school ever visits the ranch, so she’s kept her room the way she decorated it at ten…” We all agreed we liked the later anthologized version better because the “you” Meloy used throughout really pulled us into the world of the main character. Using a “you,” as if you’re addressing your younger self as a separate character, is also an effective way to create some mental distance (see point 1).
  4. Try writing in present tense. You may have been taught that you should stick to a single tense, and that is a good rule to abide by. But breaking the rules from time to time can bring new energy to your writing—if you’re smart about it. Writing a scene in the present tense, even though the rest of your memoir is in past tense, will give that scene a greater sense of immediacy for the reader. Done well, it can feel like the scene is so emotionally powerful, so vivid in your narrator’s memory, they are being transported back in time to relive it all over again. Just be careful not to overuse this technique and pick a scene that’s truly worthy of the present-tense treatment. For a good example in fiction, check out Tessa Hadley’s story Valentine in The New Yorker. Notice how she writes the opening scene—the first meeting with Valentine—in the present tense and then transitions into past.
  5. Use detailed descriptions to reveal how your narrator sees the world. Generally speaking, the more specific, concrete details you can give the reader, the more alive your narrator’s world will feel to them. But description also reveals character—the details the narrator notices and how they describe them shows us what matters to them, their personality, their attitude towards the things in their world and helps foster the connection between your narrator and the reader, which is ultimately what keeps the reader invested in your story.
20 July 2017

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