Fall is right around the corner, and I’m sharing my top 10 memoir tips as inspiration for this season I love, which can be a prolific time for writers, but also sometimes difficult. We’ve got the fresh start of back-to-school alongside holiday overwhelm, presenting conflicting energies for some. So dive in, and share anything that keeps you moving from month-to-month too.
1. Choose a structure
Memoirists can benefit from having a structure in place before they start writing. You can and should base your structure off of memoirs that have already been written. Choosing a beginning point and an endpoint for your story will help you start building your structure.
2. Have a theme in mind
Don’t try to encompass the entirety of your lived experience since birth or childhood. Memoir is not autobiography, and can be distinguished from its sister genre by its thematic focus.
3. Takeaways are gifts to your readers
Sometimes these fall at the end of scenes or the end of chapters, but that’s not always necessary. Takeaways are subtle moments of observation about the world around you, a wrapping up of an experience through a lesson learned or the sharing of the way something impacted you.
4. Don’t confuse reflections with takeaways
Reflection happens between scenes, and sometimes after scenes. Reflection is an internal moment where writers explicitly tell the reader how they feel about something, or what something meant to them, which is why it’s best when it’s supplemental to a scene. Wherever there is reflection, there is an opportunity for a takeaway, but it doesn’t mean that necessarily all reflections are going to be takeaways.
5. Remember to track time in your memoir
You have lived your life but your readers haven’t. You can anchor your reader in relation to major events that have happened in your book by using dates, your own aging, and the passing of birthdays or significant cultural events (like the death of MLK, Jr. or JFK, or 9/11). Your insights and experiences are far too valuable for readers to get caught up questioning where they are in your timeline.
6. Ask yourself: Who’s driving my memoir?
If you’re driving your memoir, you may feel like you have it all figured out. But then you might also feel like there’s not much creative juice flowing. On the flip side, if your memoir is driving, you’re probably letting your memoir dictate where it wants to go, which can be both inspirational and frustrating. Depending on which situation you’re finding yourself in, switch seats. Practice letting the memoir drive if you’ve been too long at the wheel, or suck it up and take over for a while if you’ve been dozing off in the passenger seat.
7. “Zoom in” on important details
Get behind the lens of your own memoir camera and think like the director of your own story. Too often I see aspiring memoirists not using the full range of their camera lens and instead staying completely zoomed out in the Big Picture, reluctant to zoom in and create the details of the scene they’re asking their reader to enter. Zooming out is the broader lens we use to show “how things are,” to move forward the plot. Three easy solutions are to read more memoirs and see how others describe their surroundings, don’t judge yourself for stopping to describe the scene, and don’t feel like your lying by describing scenes with specificity. You are not lying if you create a singular experience from something that you remember as having happened multiple times.
8. Find a revision method that works for you
Students often ask if it’s better to revise as you go or just keep writing to get it all out. There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. Revising as you go is a solid strategy for those writers who hope to have a relatively clean first draft. For a lot of writers it’s worth the extra effort to tidy up each chapter, post-feedback, knowing they’re putting in hours now for later gains. On the other hand, for any writer who knows they get mired in the details of revision, there’s really no choice but to move on. Some writers cannot multitask and might even feel they lose their creative juice when they try to switch between writing and revising. However, there are a few middle ground options that may be useful. You can accept all your editor’s changes except for the big-picture queries so you at least have a relatively “clean” file to come back to later. Or try printing out each chapter as you complete it and put it in a three-ring binder. When you get feedback that impacts previous chapters, write notes in the margins of those printed-out chapters.
9. Set boundaries
You give your memoir boundaries by planning. This can be outlining, or it can be using a process I call scaffolding, which is projecting out your chapters one or two chapters at a time instead of trying to map out your whole book in advance. Treat yourself to some organization principles, and start practicing getting ahead of what you’re writing by projecting out what’s coming. It’s comforting to have a sense of where you’re going next, even if you can’t yet see the finish line.
10. Don’t let this time of year be an excuse for not writing
During the fall when the holidays are upon us, a lot of writers feel stuck and use lack of time or family commitments as an excuse to take a break from writing. Any writer who’s ever been stuck knows what this is like. Your thoughts are as slow as molasses. Writing feels like a thing you should be doing, and at the end of the day it’s always the one thing you haven’t done. Your unfinished writing lives in the recesses of your mind and weighs on your conscience. As much as you might think that there’s always going to be a better time, the truth is that there is no better time than now. If you can figure out a way to make time to write during the holidays, then you will always find time during the rest of the year. The only truly effective strategy I know is to voice out loud to yourself and others that you are making a commitment. Put it in writing and make it happen. Jump on the bandwagon at NaNoWriMo, too. It’s not only for novelists. Plenty of memoirists knock out thousands of words every year during November with tons of support from that excellent organization.