It happens in each of our long courses that I hit a point where I realize how much writers really shoulder when it comes to writing a memoir. There are so many things to hold in addition to the memories, messages from our saboteurs, and bouts of self-doubt. Most writers who are working on a memoir are learning a new craft while also dealing with the wellspring of emotion that comes from tapping into experiences that can oftentimes feel like stirring a hornet’s nest.
Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of all the points you’re supposed to hit while writing. So here’s a list you might print out and keep in your writing space—a checklist of sorts, but more like a scene-writing toolkit. When you’re writing scenes, keep in mind that you have all these tools and more at your disposal. You might want to do a quick run-through at the end of each scene you write and ask yourself which you’ve touched upon. And if your list is looking a little sparse, you can consider layering in some other concepts to make your scenes more robust.
When I think of books I love, I consider the ways in which they’ve sometimes challenged me. I think of beauty. Sometimes our shitty first drafts are just that, an effort to get out what you need to say. But in a second or third pass, you want to be looking to word variation to create an experience the reader won’t forget. Vary up your words and your sentences to keep the reader’s mind engaged.
A scene without dialogue is like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the jelly. It’s fine, but it’s just not as good. Look for opportunities to weave in dialogue. It makes your characters come alive, and it provides a needed break for the reader from narrative summary.
Narrative voice can be varied up too. Some memoirs are done only in what’s often called the “voice of innocence,” while others are told exclusively from the “voice of experience.” These are your “then” and “now” narrators, and I personally love memoirs that let both voices speak. Given yourself permission to explore what you think today about what happened to you “back then.” You can weave back and forth. You can use reflection to give insight to the reader about what you know today but couldn’t have possibly known “back then.” Using a more complex narrative voice lends sophistication to your memoir.
Please, don’t forget body language and tone when you’re writing descriptions and dialogue. The reader can garner a lot of information about how a line is delivered if you tell us about a raised eyebrow, a terse look, a pat on the back, a smirk. Writers often underdeliver on body language cues either because they lived what they’re writing and don’t see how important it is, or because they forget. This is an invaluable tool!
Figures of speech
There are many figures of speech, but for the purposes of this post I’m only going to point out metaphors and similes. Use them. They’re wonderful. And they create more dynamic imagery for your reader.
Analogies are also great brain teasers, and only not included above in figures of speech because they’re not. Analogies serve the same purpose as metaphors and similes, however. Because they’re imaginative, and because they compare two unlike things to show a likeness, they’re fun and interesting for your reader—and can create a very rewarding reading experience.
This is a big one—and it’s the essence of scene. Yet too often writers breeze through their descriptions, not giving their reader enough. I’ve come to discover that this often stems from not wanting to be boring, and yet the result of that way of thinking is that a scene can feel rushed, and the reader ends up feeling like they’re not wholly immersed in your memoir, or worse, just cheated.
When you think of these details, you’re considering taste, sight, sound, touch, and smell. Let your scenes explore each of these details. Or at least consider them while you’re writing. What were you—the protagonist—tasting, seeing, hearing, touching, and smelling during any given scene? These are the details that make scenes come alive—and create that layered description you’re aiming to gift to your readers.
All good memoir has reflection. An easy rule of thumb is to allow your reflections to come at the end of scenes. Don’t forget to let the reader know what the then-narrator was thinking or feeling, or, when appropriate, what the now-narrator makes of a given scene from your vantage point this many years later.
This is a first stab at this list. We welcome your feedback if you have more tools you’d like to add to this kit.
Thank you, and keep writing!