Writing a Book-length Memoir
For starters, you’re going to be overwhelmed. We might as well get that up front. Writing–or trying to write a book-length anything–is overwhelming. I know, because I’ve written several, and it was hell. And I’ve worked with a lot of other people who have written books, and I’ve never heard a one of them say, “Hey, that was easy.” Or if I did, I fled the other way. I did hear a few of them say it was good work, and certainly many of them said it was entirely worthwhile, possibly life-saving, and deeply satisfying. In other words, worth it. But still overwhelming, especially in the beginning (also in the middle, not to mention the end…). So, okay. Now you know. You’re going to be overwhelmed. Other people have been overwhelmed and lived to tell about it.
It’s hard for me to recollect how I wrote my memoir Crossing the Moon. It was not exactly a straight-forward procedure! First it was a long essay that was published in the New York Times Magazine. That piece was mosaic-like, non-sequential sections that skipped around in time, trying to get at the dilemma I found myself in: almost 39, no child. I had always wanted to be a writer, and coming of age in the 50s, I had been encouraged to be a virgin, wife, mother first and foremost. In truth, I also had encouragement to be a writer, but I couldn’t see how I could be both a mother and a writer. My own mother was a full-time mother, and I assumed that was the way motherhood should be. I thought of writers as people—not women, really—who devoted themselves to their art, their “work” as we liked to call it in creative writing graduate school. I had one foot in deeply conditioned domesticity and the other in the women’s movement, which was reinventing women’s lives so drastically it made my head hurt. It made for a weird split. I had thought I’d be a writer automatically, given that I had been fast off the blocks as a senior in college in 1969, winning a Book of the Month Club Fellowship ($3,000. I bought a Chevy Nova with it) and Stegner Fellowship to Stanford.
So off I went to California to be a writer. And that’s when the trouble began. The trouble being I didn’t know anything much about writing. Thus began the long, hard, struggle to learn to write, because my native talent could only take me so far—about as far as California, where I was plopped down in the creative writing seminar with older, more sophisticated folk who knew a lot more about writing, and life, than I did. I had thought I’d publish my first book before I was twenty-five, then thirty, then thirty-five. I was almost forty, I hadn’t published a book, and I was afraid if I changed focus to have a child, that would be the end of writing. I would use motherhood as an excuse and an escape. But I was about to miss out on having a daughter or son—even befuddled as I was I could see that was a huge life experience to forgo. The piece in the Times Magazine traced the experiences and ambivalences that had landed me, ambivalent and desperate, in infertility treatment at that late point in my life.
I half-joked that maybe I should have stopped with that long essay on the subject. But something pushed me on to write a book about it all; the truth was, I hadn’t really had my say. I hadn’t, in that one piece (which got brutally edited to shorten it), been able to express the complexity, richness, sorrow and blessings of being me. I hadn’t been able to talk enough about growing up in South Carolina, my parents, my experiences in California as the world got shape-shifted by the sexual revolution and the women’s movement. I hadn’t been able to talk enough about cats, my husband, writing, my sense of loss and continuity that this major life experience forced on me. I felt like a mess, and I wanted to take control of my story. To tell it my way, to get to tell it all. I wanted to make sense of my life, and be the one to define my own experience. I had made choices with consequences, and I had gained and lost. I wanted to honor those gains and losses. Maybe most memoirs are memorials in a way.
But it wasn’t a straight-forward or easy process to turn that short piece into a book. A book is so LONG! I had to find a structure, I had to figure out what to put in and what to leave out, and what order all the material should be in. I had to get in backstory, which would give meaning to the present action story. There was just so much material, from my background to deciding I would try to get pregnant, going through infertility treatment, publishing my first book, and finally coming to terms with not having a child.
Who knows how it came about (certainly not me), but finally I decided on a structure of starting the first chapter in the present, in present tense, as I go about my day, mulling over my situation of realizing time is running out to get pregnant, using the routine of the day (CAREFULLY selected moments and incidents ) to allow me to show what was on my mind, almost like the external events were scaffolding that allowed me to build the internal story of my ambivalence, mounting crisis, fear of making a mistake (big with me), desire to do and be what I had staked my life on for so long. It had to appear natural, as if I were just going through the day, but be intentional, telling, and loaded.
Because my background was in fiction, I started out scenically, in action, “showing.” This is not the only way to start or write a memoir. Many begin more expositionally, with a narrator (the author’s persona) telling the story, or at least setting it up. But however you start, you have to find a voice that will let you do both: show and tell.
Here is the opening of my memoir: “It’s an unseasonably warm afternoon in April, 1986, and I’m sitting on a stone bench outside a Dairy Queen near our house in Minneapolis, considering the two mothers and three children who share my table. I’m about to turn thirty-nine years old, which is why I’m so interested in mothers and children.” I load the opening with information, and I hope I hit on both situation and the “story.”
Vivian Gornick makes the brilliant point that every work of literature has both a situation and a “story.” She’s not using story here in the way we usually do, as simply narrative. She means story as what the writer is emotionally concerned with. “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer.” (See Gornick’s book, The Situation and the Story.) She gives the example of a poem by Elizabeth Bishop describing herself at seven during the First World War, “sitting in a dentist’s office, turning the pages of National Geographic, listening to the muted cries of pain her timid aunt utters from within. That’s the situation. The story is the child’s first experience of isolation: her own, her aunt’s, and that of the world.”
Once I had established the forward action in the first chapter, some sense of “something is going to happen,” I could catch my breath in the second chapter, going back in time to fill in background. I used a question to frame the backstory: “So how was it, I wondered, that I had arrived at this point in my life: almost thirty-nine years old, no child? When I looked back, I could see why, and even when, I took a sharp turn away from motherhood. I could also see why motherhood would catch up with me.”
That expository question and paragraph frame the material that is to come, which I treat somewhat scenically. I’m shaping the material according to the situation and story established in the first chapter. The situation is that I’m at a crisis point where I have to “do” something, try to get pregnant or not and grapple with what that will mean to my writing; the story is about my identity and self-definition—who am I and who will I become?
After the second chapter, I use a pattern of returning to the present action story (trying to have a child naturally, going into infertility treatment, etc.), in every other chapter (first, third, fifth), and using the even chapters to go back and tell the story of how I came to be in the present action fix. Eventually when the past and present meet, from that point on the rest of the book is all present action.
This is not to say I wrote it exactly that way. That was the order and structure I finally (desperately, no doubt) lit upon, when I had complied a lot of material in a random kind of way. I knew things I wanted to be in the book – that HAD to be in book. Not just because they happened (you definitely have to pick and choose, according to what the book is ABOUT), but because of their value and meaning to me. Because of what they MEANT to me! I had to figure out how to mesh everything together, to take the mess and mass I had on my hands, and lay it out in some order where readers could receive it.
But enough about me!
All you really want to know is how to write the dang thing.
Let’s say that you’ve gotten some rough draft down. You’ve written some scenes, not that you know where they’ll come in the book necessarily, you’ve described some of the main players, you’ve captured some key moments, you’ve fooled around with some backstory, wondering what to put in and what to leave out. Maybe you’ve started at the beginning, whatever that is, and run out of gas. Well, never mind. Good! You’ve gotten some words down on paper. I want to try to tell you what to do next.
I like to garden, and I have hardly ever met a flower I didn’t like and didn’t want to grow. This passion has led to a lot of different plants showing up in my garden, some of which have thrived, and many of which have straggled, or downright died. But at some point I paid good money to have a landscape designer come in and do an actual garden design. It looked so beautiful on paper! The garden has never looked as good as the design on paper, with its colored pastel drawings of various size circles representing plants, and then there was the hardscape. I had never heard the term hardscape, and now I’m its biggest fan. I love hardscape because it won’t die on you, or get leggy. It’s the foundation of the garden, the brick paths and in our case, a pergola. It’s things made out of brick, stone, concrete, and wood. Not plants – they must be the softscape, though I haven’t heard that word used. At any rate, Julie, our landscape designer, started with the hardscape and got a kind of geometric pattern down. She cut down our ugly concrete patio to a perfect square, and made a brick path in from the garage into a straight line intersecting with one side of the concrete patio, and resumed the straight line brick walk on the other side leading to the backdoor. Geometric! Then she filled in the whole backyard with swirling circles of beautiful plants (at least on paper) – which, I suddenly saw – would not have worked without the hardscape, to give definition and form and shape to the green things.
At a certain point, just writing is a little like gardening without a plan. You may indeed create a beautiful garden by planting things here or there, but you may also sense an underlying lack of order and form. You may actually waste time and effort at a certain point. Maybe if you were a little more patient–which I am not–you might sit down and consider things before just rushing to the garden center and buying whatever is in bloom and strikes your fancy, planting it wherever you can squeeze it into the yard.
Bear with me here. You will get to plant – and write – eventually. But first let’s just think about the overall garden – the overall book you want to write, now that you’ve had some experience growing plants and words. So where to start? How to start, that is the better question. I’m speaking here about the stage where you’ve generated some material, made contact, as it were, with some of the material of the book Now, you’re ready to try a complete draft.
It’s human nature to want to start at the beginning, but what is the beginning? Where to begin? And how?
Now is the time to pause, and think about the Big Picture, to try to grasp the gestalt of your book as it has been forming somewhere deep in your mind. You want to try to bring this information more to consciousness, and doing some writing on the side, conceptually, is a good way to do that.
Write the answers to these questions to get a firmer grasp on the project as a whole.
First, consider your intentions and audience.
Why do you want to write this?
There are any number of reasons, but what are yours? To create a text? To give meaning and coherent to your life? To honor or preserve something, as in creating a memorial? To understand your own experience? To take control of your experience by ordering it and representing it? To be praised, admired, loved?
To get back at the bastards is probably not a good reason; same with I’ll show those bastards. At the very least the reader will expect you to have arrived at some earned understanding and wisdom that doesn’t include pure revenge.
Who is the audience for this work?
It’s helpful to be clear on this, because it influences what and how you write. So take some time to write about your intended audience. Get clear on who you’re writing for, and why.
If it’s just for yourself, your standards are different (perhaps) than if you hope to publish it publically.
If it’s for family and friends only, they may not need as much context since they know you.
But if you’re aiming for readers, people out there who don’t know you or your story, you have to step up your act. You have to be in the ballpark of what readers want. So you might stop a moment and ask yourself what makes a memoir interesting to me?
Is it because of a likeable or appealing protagonist?
Is it because of the story itself? You want to know about this particular subject matter or experience—becoming a widow, or hiking the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Or you want to know how the author got through this childhood, or crisis, and what they discovered over the course of the journey. You want to know what another has made of things, of life. You want the particulars, this individual’s story, and you want the universals that it represents: love, loss, longing, courage, strength, human nature, anger, pain, resilience…
Is it the craft? Do you value the style or language, or the unique voice and vision?
Do you love self-deprecating humor?
Do you want to be moved to tears?
Do you enjoy the originality? The depth perhaps? The creation of a vivid, fully realized time and place?
It’s worth thinking about these in terms of your own memoir. What do you want a reader to respond to in your book? What will make someone want to read it? What will they “get” from it?
Just accept that you can’t please all the people all the time. Don’t even bother! But think of that reader out there in reader-land who really is interested in the story you have to tell, who is simpatico, who is waiting for you to tell him or her your story. Write to that person; write with that listener/reader firmly in mind. Speak to him; tell her.
And while you’re at it, think about what you dislike in memoir: self-pity, victimization, revenge, bathos. The feeling that the author hasn’t “made” anything of his or her experience. Had the experience but missed the meaning…
Next, take some time to write everything you “know” about this book. You might want to do this over several writing sessions.
What will be in it?
What will it cover?
What is it ABOUT?
What will make it compelling to you and others?
How long might it be?
What time period might it cover?
Where does it take place?
When might you finish it?
What do you want it to do for you?
What do you want it to do for readers?
Who is the audience for this book?
Write everything you KNOW about this book at this point. Don’t think too much about it, just free-write and let come out things you know, even if you don’t know you know them until you write them.
Now, write a Prologue or Preface. This time, speak directly to this interested, sympathetic reader who wants to but doesn’t know anything about you or your book. Tell how the book came about; explain what you want to do in the book, and why. Say what you want the reader to “get” from the book.
Next, write a description of the situation as if you’re describing it objectively. Do a synopsis of the situation. For example, with Crossing, “a woman ambivalent about motherhood because of her writing ambitions waits until almost 40 to try to get pregnant, goes through a series of infertility treatments, has a failed pregnancy, and has to come to terms with stopping and accepting that she won’t bear children.” Doesn’t have to be long. Just a capsule description of the situation of the book.
Now write what the STORY is. Story in Vivien Gornick’s sense. What is the book ABOUT? My book is ABOUT choices and consequences; about ambivalence about women’s roles; about the desire to be a writer; about a woman’s identity and self-definition.
Gornick has said that the subject of autobiography is always self-definition (and she adds, “but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s wisdom that counts.”) In what way is your memoir a work of self-definition? In what way does it engage with the world?
Now try some clustering. Pick a word that is central to your idea of your memoir. It can be a subject word, or a place, or a person or anything that serves as shorthand to you for your memoir.
Write this word in the center of the page and draw a circle around it. Then just brainstorm everything that comes to mind when you think of that word, and write those words anywhere around the circled word, drawing lines to connect and letting the new words spawn more words/images/ideas and connect them to the secondary word or to other words on the cluster. You will have a central word in a circle and a whole page (hopefully) of words connected to that word, each other, or new words. Just let anything come to you that the words you’re jotting down on the cluster conjure up. Nothing is right or wrong, just brainstorm and put down as much as you can, as fast as you can. You’re pre-writing, doing a pre-writing exercise to generate material, so that you don’t have to face the blank page before you’ve tanked up with some ideas, images, energy.
If during the course of the clustering, a voice that gives you a first sentence or paragraph starts up in your head, write that down. Keep going if you can.
Now try writing some key words, words that seem to you key to your memoir. You might think of these words as the stars in a constellation, and somehow your memoir will be linking them. But right now, you’re just writing down the stars. For example, in my memoir, key words would be the past, the future, ambivalence, writing, children, mistakes, cats, death, identity. They don’t have to mean anything to anyone else, but they mean something to you. You understand that they will be important words and concepts in your memoir.
Next, as we continue doing some pre-writing, some preparation for the memoir, working on the hardscape, let’s think about Time and Place.
What period of time does this memoir cover? You don’t have to know for sure, but you probably have a pretty good idea. And you need to be able to see what point in time you’re going to get to, because life goes on (and on) but a memoir stops at some point in time. You have to cut it off.
Draw a time line that is linear and chronological, and mark major events or moments on it pertaining to your memoir. Where does the situation start and end? It won’t necessarily be written in that chronological, linear order, but it is helpful to grasp that in your mind.
Place. Place is so evocative of feelings that you want to make sure your memoir is firmly grounded somewhere. Eudora Welty says, “Being shown how to locate, to place, any account is what does most towards making us believe it…the moment the place in which the novel [or memoir] happens is accepted as true, through it will begin to glow, in a kind of recognizable glory, the feeling and thought that inhabited the novel [memoir] in the author’s head and animated the whole of his [her] work.” (from Welty’s marvelous article “Place in Fiction,” in The Eye of the Story.)
Write a short passage that describes a place of importance to your memoir. Sometimes starting with place will jumpstart you into the story itself. It will put you in touch with the felt-sense of the story.
Narrative Structure is something that won’t come until you’ve gotten a good deal of draft material and pre-writing done. So don’t worry about it. You will eventually find the order of the material and how to structure things. Each writer has to find what works for his or her memoir, because form is so intrinsic to the author’s overall vision.
Here are two possible narrative forms for you to consider. One is the classic narrative arc, which a lot of short stories and novels employ, and the other is a more modular form.
The short story writer Alice Adams had a schema for the narrative arc that goes ABDCE. A= action; B=background; D=development; C=climax; E=ending. Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, does a good job of explaining narrative arc, using Cinderella as an example. There is the initial conflict: Cinderella and the stepmother; complications, which go back and force between the protagonist, Cinderella, and her adversaries or difficulties; the crisis (the slipper fits) and the resolution of the wedding and happily ever after.
You will notice in many memoirs and novels you read, if you look for the backbone, that the story starts with a situation, A-action; contains B, background which is feathered in, not necessarily delivered in a big chunk; moves into D, development, the proverbial plot thickens, in which complications to the original situation occur over the course of a certain length of time; then there is a C, crisis, in which things have to go one way or another; and then a falling away of the tension as things are somewhat resolved, in the E, ending.
My memoir Crossing contains a narrative arc: I start with A, the situation of being 39 and no child. Then I move into B, background, and get some of that in, then I go on to D, development, as I enter infertility treatment, continuing to filter in B, background, up until I’m just tracing present A, reaching a C, climax, when I have a miscarriage, and have to face starting again with more infertility treatment. There is another C, climax, when I visit a psychic who helps release me from keeping on with what seems a pretty doomed effort, so that I can move to E, ending, coming to terms with not being able to get pregnant, not adopting, and making peace with being childless. That’s the narrative arc, the structure more or less.
Just to try it out, draw a narrative arc, like a big upside down checkmark, with a long swooping line leading up to a peak, and then a shorter line falling off to the other side from the crisis or climax. Write at the beginning of the arc a moment when the story seems to really be underway. You are looking for when things have reached a certain point where there is some forward momentum (if it is that kind of story, and not all are, by any means). You can then track the forward progression of the action on the arc, the major events or moments, and also see where you might bring in backstory and development. This is very crude, but it’s just trying to stimulate you to see the story as an arc, perhaps. It may help you see the material as a book, with a beginning, middle and end. It isn’t just a mass of material, but something that tells a story from one point in time to another, with some sort of shape or progression.
The other form you can experiment with (and this is not to suggest that these are the only two forms; any form that works for you is a fine form!) is a modular or mosaic form. In this form, you work in blocks or sections, which can be moved around. It isn’t linear but rather you assemble a design out of smaller, component parts. An example of this is the essay I mentioned which I wrote that was in the Times, in which I had sections that were not in chronological order, but were ways of getting at the theme and subject in a heightened, short-hand way. Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments has a modular structure, at least at the beginning. Often a book will start with a modular structure and then settle into a more traditional narrative arc, as does Fierce Attachments. You can combine these two forms, for sure.
Eventually you’ll be faced with needing to write an opening for your memoir. The beginning is the hardest usually (though not always; sometimes it is just “there.”). You may need to spend a lot of time trying out various openings. You are looking for the voice that will let you tell/show your story, that takes authoritative command of the story. You want to strike the right “key note,” an opening that suggests the tone of your memoir, that plunges us into something that will capture our attention, that introduces the key elements, and that contains, however obliquely, the situation AND the story, in Gornick’s terms.
It’s really helpful to look at openings of memoirs and see what they’re doing, and how. Read them not just as consumers, but as writers. How are they introducing situation and story? What is the voice and tone of the memoir? Do you “hear” the voice? How is the protagonist introduced? What is the problem here? Where and when is the story taking place? How are you convinced that what you’re reading is really real, happening, or that it did happen? Is the author showing or telling or a combination of both? How and when is backstory introduced?
Try a couple of openings:
Begin scenically. Choose a point in time to dramatize your story. Try present tense, as if it’s happening “now,” even if it happened long ago. You’re reliving it in the writing.
Listen to Eva Hoffman’s opening lines to Lost in Translation, her memoir of emigrating to Canada from Cracow when she was thirteen:
“It is April, 1959, I’m standing at the railing of the Batory’s upper deck, and I feel that my life is ending. I’m looking out at the crowd that, all of a sudden, is irrevocably on the other side—and I want to break out, run back, run toward the familiar excitement, the waving hands, the exclamations. We can’t be leaving all this behind—but we are. I am thirteen years old, and we are emigrating. It’s a notion of such crushing, definitive finality that to me it might as well mean the end of the world.”
Notice that she starts in present tense, and how immediate that makes the scene and emotions. We’re with her, feeling what she feels at thirteen as the ship pulls away from the dock in Poland, and all she has known.
But also notice that the language and expression of those emotions comes from the adult narrator looking back – and who is able to TELL us information. The narrative voice combines both showing and telling beautifully, and the adult narrator, who KNOWS the meaning of this monumental experience for the protagonist, her young self in this passage, is able to express what the thirteen year old self could never put in words. It is WRITING, not REMEMBERING!
Now listen to Natalie Kusz open Road Song, her memoir of moving with her family to Alaska when she was six, of being mauled by sled dogs, losing her eye, and the effects on Natalie and the family of that event.
“Our first months in Alaska, that one long summertime before I was hurt, were hard—in the way, I think, that all immigrants’ lives must be hard—but they were also very grand, full of wood fires and campgrounds, full of people and the stories they told at night when we ate all together, full of clean dust that we washed from our bodies with water carried home from cold springs. My family—Mom and Dad and we four children—had driven up from Los Angeles in a green Rambler station wagon, our clothes and plants and water jugs packed and pulled behind us in a twelve-foot travel trailer with two beds. We were going for an adventure, Mom and Dad told us, to a place where we could play as loud as we wanted to, where neighbors were far away and everyone minded their own kinds of business. During the 1968 recession, my father had been laid off from his computer job….”
This is not a scenic opening, though the details—that green Rambler station wagon!—stimulate our visual sense of the story, so that it isn’t dull expository prose. It’s in past tense, with the author looking back from the perspective of a lot of time having passed, and she tells us immediately what is important, what will come in the book—that she will get hurt—but there is more to the story than that. It is going to be a story of that Alaska adventure that started out so hopefully, a story of a family starting over. The tone is nostalgic and affectionate towards her own experience, as if she has long sense come to terms with it.
Now here’s Philip Roth in Patrimony, the story of his father’s brain tumor and death:
“My father had lost most of the sight in his right eye by the time he’d reached eighty-six, but otherwise he seemed in phenomenal health for a man his age when he came down with what the Florida doctor diagnosed, incorrectly, as Bell’s palsy, a viral infection that causes paralysis, usually temporary, to one side of the face.”
He is telling you the story here, not showing it scenically. He is the authoritative narrator and he isn’t trying to draw you in and make you live the story so much as just receive it. Hear it. There will definitely be scenes, but the set-up is expository. He lays the ground work for the story that is to flow from this opening, of his father developing a facial paralysis which will turn out to be a brain tumor that will cause his death.
Try modeling one of these openings, or one of your own choosing. Study the way the writer begins, and then try to use your own material in a similar opening. Maybe you’ll begin scenically, like Hoffman, or expositionally, like Roth. Try to find a voice, a moment, an incident, that will in some essential way launch your book.
You may want at this point to sketch out a bit of an outline for the book, in chapters. It will help you organize the material, and not feel overwhelmed if you can see that it can be broken into parts that are not the whole thing. You can also see the flow of the book this way. You might jot down notes for each chapter, the material that you think will come in in that chapter. Nothing is cast in concrete, but the outline and notes will help you see the whole without having to write it all in one sitting! As if you could…
Now, just start working on the chapters. Do the best you can, and make it your goal to write a whole draft. It will be a first draft, and you should feel inordinately proud for getting the whole thing down!
And now let a little time pass, maybe get some feedback from some good readers, and really begin to write your book.