The art and craft of memoir writing



While searching for material to promote an autobiography by one of my associated authors, I came across an email from a renowned women’s literary magazine in the United Kingdom. They held a memoir writing competition last year, to which I submitted the first 5,000 words of mine, and by which I was later rejected. The email contained some very valuable feedback, which I hope, by sharing, will benefit other writers as well.

I used to think the most important task of writing a memoir is to be honest. After all, we have seen so many memoirs by politicians and celebrities that are more of a self-praising and even self-deceiving nature than truly representing their achievements and failures. While being honest with oneself is hard, doing so in front of people about the workings of one’s inner sanctuary is even harder. To achieve this requires extraordinary courage and discipline.

Perhaps because those writers who submitted to the aforementioned memoir writing competitions are merely ordinary women (me included), their extraordinary life stories are told in amazingly honest voices. According to the magazine:

“Reading the entries for this competition is proving a white-knuckle ride for our judges: by turns diverting and disturbing. A light-hearted romp through an eccentric childhood might be followed, in the next manuscript, by a harrowing account of sexual abuse or wartime trauma. They have been surprised and impressed by the sheer diversity of the life stories they’ve been reading. They were expecting exotic travelogues and compelling narratives from the survivors of mental illness and bereavement – and there were many of these. What was less expected, perhaps, were the many accounts of religious and cultural conflict, especially those involving migration and mixed-race marriages. And there were a worryingly large minority of stories about cruel, indifferent or mentally unstable mothers.”

There appears to be some evidence that “highly creative individuals – from all walks of life – are more likely than less creative people to have experienced some kind of trauma or dramatic upheaval in childhood”. However, there is caution – the judges of the aforementioned memoir writing competition chose not to shortlist many manuscripts because of their OVERINCLUSIVENESS. What does this mean? According to the magazine:

“Some of you were…still ‘too close’ to your story and unable to select which aspects of an eventual life would be most interesting to the reader. With a memoir, selection and focus are absolutely vital – even if that means excluding fascinating material.”

I find this fascinating because it seems to suggest that to be honest, it is sometimes necessary to withhold some part of the truth – especially when we need this honesty to be widely accepted. Can this be seen as a challenge the autobiographical nature and significance of memoir? Are we writing memoirs for other people’s reading pleasure or for an honest recording and sharing of our lives? Come to think of it, why – and how– do we share a life if it does not seem interesting to other people?

For the purpose of the aforementioned competition – and beyond – the magazine offered some advice on the art and craft of memoir writing:

“On the question of structure, interleaving the present day with the past worked well as a way of drawing out themes; and writing in third person, while distancing in some cases, also allowed for more novelistic skills to be used. Also crucial to a successful memoir are plot and character – just as they are in fiction.”

Here it highlights, again, the similarities between memoirs and fictional stories – no matter how gripping and inspiring a story is, how skilfully it is told is perhaps more important than the amount of truth it contains and is able to reveal. After all, a truthful life story is still a story, and it is a good story the readers want to read. Having an interesting life is not enough – we have to be able to “show, not tell”.

Perhaps the most important advice is this:

“The judges said that they often faced a difficult choice between a grippingly told narrative about relatively ‘light’ issues and a more prosaic rendering of a far more momentous life story. Their dilemma was deepened by the knowledge that everything they were reading was true: many extracts were set aside with a sense of real regret, and the hope that with some editing and rewriting – they would eventually find the readership they deserved… With personal material of this kind, it is often not until the work has been digested and edited many times that the true kernel of the story emerges.”

In other words, we should revise our memoir perhaps even more rigorously than what we normally do with fictional stories. After all, it is much harder to polish and make a genuine gem stone shine than processing an artificially manufactured diamond. Throughout the process of attempting to write a memoir, I certainly find it useful to repeatedly reflect upon my life. If nothing else, memoir writing is an exercise of reviewing and revitalising our life so we can move on.

(Image thanks to: “Memoir Examples”, Life Story Writing)


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