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Tips on Writing Memoir

August 15, 2013


Today I posted an article on my new website, (if you haven’t checked it out, please do!) about what the past six months have been like for me after I got fired by Quakers.

That sounds like a great title for a movie, doesn’t it? Fired by Quakers. 

I’ve written a little bit about what happened on this blog, but I’ve mostly avoided the details. Even as I tried, again and again, through different angles, to get the words on the page about what happened, I would see the shape of the thing and go, Ugh. 

Sometimes, we don’t even know the range of negative feelings inside us until we start writing. Even though I try to write in my journal every day, and even though I have a bunch of stalled projects on my computer (I really need to get working on those), I learn a lot about myself when I try to give structure to a piece of writing that won’t stop haunting me. This is hard in both fiction and memoir for different reasons; but when talking about something painful that really happened, it’s especially hard.

So much is about the angle you choose to take, but that’s not everything. A lot is about execution, about fulfilling the promise of the piece. In Stephen Cope’s book, The Great Work of Your Lifehe talks about how each piece of writing has its own dharma. It may not immediately be clear—just like the next stage in our lives might not be so clear—but if we keep working on it, we’ll find it. We have to be open to being led along the way. Writing, like life, is about letting go of your ego; breathing life into the new shapes that come into our world.

Even though my first and one true love is fiction, here is what I’ve learned in writing memoir:

1. Lose the ego. Wrap a nice big piece of gauze around your delicate ego—or an old sock will do—take it out of your head, where you’re the center of the world, and set it aside. The coffee table is fine—or hide it under a lamp, give it some light. Wherever you choose to put it, it does not belong here, on the page.

2. Don’t blame anybody. No one wants to hear a rant. That does not inspire, or uplift others, and it will certainly not uplift you. You’ll be in the exact same place at the end of the piece as you were in the beginning. (Besides, people who are angry and want to hear other people ranting won’t be reading your blog; they’re too busy watching Bill O’Reilly, or the rest of Fox News.) No—try to adjust your attitude, or find the silver lining, or look on the bright side—choose your cliche. But remember: blaming, and name-calling, and character assassination—those things aren’t for you. You’re better than that, even though you may have very strong feelings. Take out your paper journal that no one else but you will see, and write everyone who hurt you a really mean letter. Throw a bunch of F-bombs in there, make fun of them, get it out of your system until you’re in a more peaceful place. But don’t put more garbage out in the world.

3. Avoid including every single detail. If you’re writing a book, that might be different, but even then you have to be choosy. While every detail is important to you, because you’re like a lawyer trying to win a case, readers don’t want to get bogged down with the minutiae. Choose one glimmering detail that perfectly illustrates your point, and maybe one more, if you think it really needs it, but that’s all. Focus on the arc of the story, the bigger picture. Imagine you, 87, in a hospital bed. What are the things you want your readers to remember? I suspect you won’t be counting all the evidence, then.

4. Speak for yourself. Don’t include a lot of conjecture, or assumptions made about people and situations, or preaching. Stick to your story, what happened to you. The most important thing, I find, about a narrator—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—is that she or he be trustworthy. When I read an untrustworthy narrator—unless that’s the whole point of the piece, like you’re writing some sort of Pynchon-ian, Nabokov-ian postmodern opus that I won’t want to read anyway because that stuff’s kind of pretentious—I lose interest, fast. Even worse, I get mad. I say, Stop lying to me. Stop being dishonest. And I throw the book, or place it gently in the trash, or something. Same thing with your blog—people won’t come back.

5. Keep perspective. This one is more important for you personally than it is about the narrative you’re telling. As you get into the nitty gritty of writing, try to remain unattached, as though your real self is on a higher plane, looking down. Remember that this is only one stage of your life, one small part, even though it may loom large in your psyche and in your soul. See it as a piece of the puzzle, a leg of the journey—not the whole thing. You need distance, both emotional and physical, to sort out what you want to write, because anything you write while you are in the moment, in the hurt, where you can’t see anything else—that’s the stuff you save for the moleskin journal in the dead of night. Remember this: when you write about events in your life that may have harmed you—you will never regret being the bigger person. You may get no credit for being the bigger person, and you’ll miss all the fun that comes with that quick thrill, but the small gratification goes away almost immediately, and what’s left is your character. Never let your integrity suffer for a piece of writing. Never. 


And there you have it: Jana’s tips on writing nonfiction. So should I start a blog?


Image: “Le coitre” by bladsurb via Flickr.


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol Smith August 15, 2013 at 5:48 pm

There is a difference between being fired, and being let go. The latter pertains more to your situation. Just saying…..


Vanessa August 16, 2013 at 8:02 am

I think you accomplished number 2 quite well in your piece on First Day! It definitely inspired Tom and I. In fact it inspired a good conversation between us last night. You and Tom have come to very similar points although the road you each chose to take to get there seem quite different. Being fired from faith-based jobs is an interesting situation to say the least but your positive spin is encouraging. Thank you.


Nina August 16, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Great tips! #4 is the one I have to work on the most. Usually get control of it in the editing stage.


Mary Jo Caffrey August 17, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Thank you for this enlightening essay on writing memoir. There’s much food for thought and composition here.

I’m working on a short memoir of my experiences in USAF Officer Training School many years ago and will keep your list in mind when it is finished.


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