How to write memoir

Are you writing a memoir? Who do you think you are anyway! If you’re not a football player, a celebrity blogger, an ex-politician, comedian or actor, why would people be interested?

Plenty of reasons. Memoir and autobiography are a perpetually popular genre. People love getting an insight into other people’s lives, whether they’re famous, unusual, adventurous or just living in faraway places. You too could write a memoir that’s of interest to a wide readership – yes you could!

Here are some salient points.

Inspiration

Ideally you should already know and love the genre you’re writing in. Whether you do or don’t, read for inspiration and knowledge on how it’s done. Travel memoir has always been a particular favourite of mine and I have perpetual go-to choices. Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence practically invented the genre. Robin Davidson made me long for a more adventurous life after reading Tracks, while Sarah Turnbull made me long for a view of Parisian rooftops in Almost French. And Dirk Bogarde, well known as an actor, was also brilliant at creating a sense of place and sense of an English abroad, in his memoirs such as A Short Walk from Harrods.

a year in provence        almost french       a short walk from harrods dirk bogarde

There’s no shame in looking to other works for inspiration and know-how. While it’s not memoir, Harold Jacobson is on record as saying he had an example of the genre he was emulating – a suspenseful noir thriller – open on the desk beside him while he wrote his Man Booker prize winning The Finkler Question. For myself, the minute I read Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons, I knew it was an example of the voice I could be writing in. If you’re lucky enough to be published and invited to talk about your book, that’s when you can mention influences and give credit where it’s due.

Drama

You can’t just rewrite the everyday. You might base your tales on things that happened in reality, but you’ve got to dramatise. Otherwise, what you’re writing is a round robin letter, and you should save it for Christmas. If you’re a natural memoir writer or satirist, you’ll hear and see things in everyday life which you know instinctively will make great material. You should develop your ear so that you’re not only picking up on things, but you know how to make them work on the page. There might be someone you know who’s a bit of a character. Something you’ve heard someone say, a great expression, a way of looking at things. Enhance, embellish, rewrite and tighten.

English playwright Jo Orton made a specialism of this, famously eavesdropping on conversations on double decker buses in London and putting them down verbatim in his diaries. You might want to disguise them a little, and hopefully you won’t meet the same end as Orton, but read John Lahr’s seminal biography of him, Prick Up Your Ears, if you want to know how it can be done.

The ability to write dialogue which jumps off the page and is taut, tight and entertaining – or whatever mood you want it to create – is essential. You might write a first draft which replicates exactly what someone said or might say, but you’ll need to tighten it in edit. Make it flow, whisper, stumble – whatever mood you need that dialogue to create, there shouldn’t be a spare or out of place word in there. Study dialogue conventions in books you enjoy too. They might seem a little peculiar, but inside a reader’s head, they work, and that’s what matters. All the examples given so far excel at this.

jo orton        driving over lemons

Self-deprecation

If you’re writing about memoir, you’re probably writing about other people as well as yourself. You need to tread carefully here. Unless you’re writing an expose, you might want to keep it respectful and write about people in a way which endears the reader to them. Don’t poke fun, vilify or be insulting – unless you’re up for a lot of unpleasantness or even the cold shoulder from your community.  If you master the right tone of self-deprecation and humility, it will endear your book to readers. It’s the literary equivalent of putting your hands up and saying ‘Hey, the joke’s on me here.’ Praise for Driving Over Lemons is full of comments like ‘humble and enchanting’, ‘modest and humorous’, ‘lack of pretension’, ‘no hint of patronage’. Definitely something to aim for.

It’s not all about you

Well it might be, on the surface. But there needs to be some themes or material that your readers will relate to, no matter who they are and how different they are from you. There’s no way I was ever going to lead camels across the Simpson Desert like Robyn Davidson, but I loved her spirit of adventure in Tracks. Here’s the intro to Penny Pepper’s book First In The World Somewhere: ‘Penny Pepper has led an extraordinary life. She is a writer. Poet. Punk. Pioneer. Activist. And she also happens to be disabled.’

first in the world somewhere penny pepper      tracks robyn davidson

If you can write in a way that readers can relate to and include themes they’ll connect with, no matter if they’re quite different from you in some way, you’re reaching the broader readership you should be aiming for. Otherwise you’re back to that round robin letter.  My own book is ostensibly about our first five years in Tasmania and it’s a humorous look at life, but it covers many things that women experience – like the push and pull of a marriage, and the struggle to balance life and work and retain a sense of identity after we’ve had children. It’s also a portrayal of the Tasmania I’ve grown to know and love. Think about the things you want to talk about – other than yourself.

So there it is. To recap,

  1. Read for inspiration and get to know your genre and follow its conventions – or break them!
  2. Create drama, don’t just replicate real life. Excite your readers with humour, pathos, a sense of danger – whatever suits the content.
  3. Be humble. If you’re writing about yourself, don’t big it up. And if you’re writing about others, be kind as well as observant.
  4. Think about over-arching themes and the overall comment you’re making. It will give your book a whole other dimension.

That’s it! Most of all, get writing. You can’t edit nothing, but you can edit a rough draft.

Fiona Stocker’s travel memoir ‘Apple Island Wife – Slow Living in Tasmania’ is published by Unbound.

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6 thoughts on “How to write memoir

  1. Lots of great ideas. I’ve written a quite a few memories on my blog and, in fact, I have compiled a whole lot more ( about 72k words ) into a manuscript which I hope to bring out soon!

    Like

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