Excited to Share my 101 on Memoir Writing for All the Budding Memorists

101 on Memoir Writing

Memoir 101 by Terry Baker Mulligan

“Write what you know” sounds like wise advice, but if writers didn’t experiment and break new ground, literature might have died under the weight of its own tedium. Today we know that part of the joy in writing is discovery: interviewing subjects, digging through library stacks, visiting neighborhoods or even countries where your characters shopped, studied, lived or loved.

Mark Twain purportedly said, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” although that quote takes many forms from multiple sources. On the surface, it is easy to write what you know, and memoir is a genre that both novice and experienced writers explore. And, because life is so strange (and interesting I might add), why bother to make things up? Those are valid points, but to be successful, memoir, like any piece of writing, must be well conceived, have structure and engage its audience.

Life writing comes in multiple forms: the journal, diary, biography, autobiography, memoir essay, letter and, more recently, blogs. For a book-length testament of a life, biography remains the common medium for penning the story of another person’s life. Autobiography is a vehicle for telling one’s own life story. Then there is memoir.

There are exceptions to all rules, but as a document of  one’s own life, memoir often takes a more personal approach. Compared to autobiography, memoir has more room novelty; memoir  has more show, less tell, and often focuses more on passion, desire, action, exposé, dialogue. Memoir can also differ from autobiography in covering a significant period or life-changing event in the narrator’s life, rather than a whole life story.

Some examples of full-length life writing: 

Biography: Ron Chernow’s National Book Award–winner, Alexander Hamilton, about the founding father, begins in 1690, sixty-seven years before his subject, Hamilton was born. Then it chronicles Hamilton’s life and times in great and entertaining detail.

Autobiography: The Story of my Life, by Helen Keller, remains a classic that introduced readers to the world of the deaf. It was one the early publications that changed the mind-set on limitations within the disabled community. It starts with Keller’s birth in 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and takes us through her triumphs as an adult.

Memoir: In The Liars Club, Mary Karr’s best-selling memoir, Karr recounts her rough-and-tumble 1960s childhood in southeastern Texas, an area where oil refineries and chemical plants dot the landscape. This book stood out for its originality and dazzling language and received high praise. The New Yorker lauded Karr’s “bar-stool phraseology and … winking eye for image.”

Before we move to the internal workings of a memoir, it should be noted that there are also fictional memoirs:

Memoir of a Geisha, Arthur Golden’s novel, is about the confessions of a famous Japanese geisha. He fictionalized his book, but the story is purported to be true. Accordingly, Golden’s publisher was sued for breach of contract by the woman on whose life Golden based his novel.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s 2002 novel, American Wife, also takes the form of a memoir. It is an often intimate portrayal of the fictional characters Alice Lindgren and her husband, Charlie Blackwell, who are thinly veiled replica’s of Laura and George W. Bush. Though fictionalized, the book includes many personal details from Laura Bush’s life.

The Elements of a Memoir :The Arc

In fiction workshops, writers learn that stories need to follow an arc. A literary arc is the emotional framework of the novel. The memoir should also have an arc that represents the conflict the subject tries to resolve. Within this arc is the beginning, middle and end of the story.

For fun, we can quickly construct an arc for a hypothetical character named Mary. She is a fifty-two-year-old bookseller who spent twenty-five years pursuing her passion to be a ballet dancer.

 Mary’s Arc:

Her memoir begins at age six, around the time of her first ballet lesson.

  • Mary’s mother pushes her hard, and by the time Mary is twelve, it’s obvious she is a standout student.

  • Due to the shape of her feet, Mary’s practices become grueling and painful.

  • During the 1960s, at age fifteen, against the wishes of Mary’s father, her mother sends Mary to Moscow to study ballet at the prestigious Bolshoi Dance Academy.

  • Her father, who emigrated from a smaller town just outside of Moscow, is against this idea. He says it is not a good time to be in the Soviet Union.

  • On the way over, Mary’s flight has mechanical trouble while in the air.

  • Once in the Soviet Union, Mary visits with her father’s family.

  • After she’s settled at the academy, she meets a famous dancer, and they have an affair.

  • Eight weeks later, Mary comes home with a broken heart and a broken bone in her right foot

  • For fifteen years, Mary’s dance career seesaws through periods of triumph and pain.

  • Today she runs a bookstore in her home town and struggles with arthritis and ongoing pain, but she has made peace with her quest to be a ballerina.

This hypothetical life is just waiting to be filled in with action spanning two continents, including details of a visit to the Soviet Union during the Cold War era. There’s a glamorous international figure, missed opportunity for a normal childhood, conflict between parents, etc. Mary can bring her twenty-five year saga to life with action, characters, vivid imagery, dialogue, conflict, setting.

A successful, page-turning memoir does not have to be about an exotic life, such as that of a Japanese geisha, or a dysfunctional upbringing, like Mary’s Karr’s. Nor do most people have a relationship with a famous person, as did “our Mary.”

Here are a few more hypothetical possibilities on the “ordinary” memoir:

  • How life got better after the birth of my disabled child

  • A job transfer to a new city

  • A stint in the military

  • Loving my dog Gus

  • Fat and  all, I learned to love who I am

  • A battle against bulimia or obesity

  • Growing up in a happy household

Just remember to find the nuggets within your life story: the little treasures that make life not always stranger than fiction, but at least as interesting.

Finally, putting pen to paper sometimes lessens one’s pain and can be cathartic, which might partly explain what motivated someone like Jaycee Dugard to write, A Stolen Life: A Memoir, about living eighteen harrowing years in the hands of her kidnapper.

About Terry Baker Mulligan

Terry Baker Mulligan (www.terrybakermulligan.com) is the author of Sugar Hill: Where the Sun Rose Over Harlem, which won the 2012 Independent Publishers (IPPY) Award for Adult Multicultural Nonfiction, and the 2013 Benjamin Franklin Awards for Multicultural Writing and Autobiography / Memoir Writing. Her second book, Afterlife in Harlem, was released in October 2014. A former writing Instructor at St. Louis Community College Writing Center, Terry was born and raised in Harlem across the street from the Grange, Alexander Hamilton’s historic home, which is the subject of her upcoming novel. She now lives in St. Louis, where she was recently named one of the city’s top fifty authors by a government committee.


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