Scenes are the building blocks of memoir. Given this is so, you can’t really begin to write a great memoir—heck, even a good memoir—until you master scene. Linda Joy and I teach scene in nearly all the classes we teach. (In fact, we did a recent hour-long intensive on scene that’s available to view here.) And as much as we know how important it is for memoirists to wrap their minds around the mechanics of what’s involved, there’s no substitute for practice.
In my opinion, practice comes in two forms—reading and writing. I can’t tell you how many aspiring memoirists I work with who don’t read the genre. And while it pains me to hear people confess this, I appreciate the honesty. I also feel it’s my responsibility to inform those writers that it’s their responsibility to read memoir. Reading memoir is a first step to mastering scene. Paying attention to other writers’ form, how they write sensual details, and how they transition are ways to hone your own craft. If there’s a memoir you love, consider mapping the scenes. It’s a fascinating practice, and doing so will make you a smarter reader and a better writer.
Next comes practice writing. Yes, I’m really talking about writing that doesn’t necessarily need to be part of your memoir-in-progress. Many writers feel that everything they execute exists only for the project at hand. But where did we get that idea? The best writers I know are not true talents, but rather writers who toil away at their art, who take classes and have a desire to better their prose. They are avid readers and they do writing prompts, morning pages, and practice writing to play with voice, form, and craft. If this feels daunting, it’s time to push yourself to the next level. Writing is not supposed to be easy, and if it were, or if it is, it’s probably not as rewarding to you as it might otherwise be.
Seeing the improvement in your own writing is one of the most amazing gifts you can give yourself. And yes, this comes with practice. If you can admit to yourself that you haven’t mastered scene, it’s time to implement a scene-writing practice. Commit to writing one scene that’s unrelated to your memoir project at least once a week. Maybe you do this every Saturday or Sunday morning, like a meditation practice.
Here are some guidelines:
- Establish a word count. Practice scenes should be at least 1000 words, and you might limit it to 3000 words just to have a parameter. (note: this should not be used as a rule you need to adhere to in your writing at large—there are not hard, fast rules about scene length.)
- Give yourself a prompt. If you can’t think of one, you can find them online. I recommend Laura Davis’s prompts, and Mark Nepo’s weekly reflections, which always close with a question.
- Allocate enough time so that you can complete the practice scene in a single sitting.
- Have your tools ready. Check out my blog post, “Your Scene-Writing Toolkit” to brush up on all the various scene elements you might draw upon.
- Remember the importance of sensory details—visuals, sounds, smells, tastes, textures—and use them with abandon.
- Brush up on the ingredients of good scene, starting with this great post by Linda Joy.
- Practice weekly, and incorporate what you learn into your memoir (if you’re writing one).
- Acknowledge your hard work and celebrate your strides.
Good luck—and write on!