Write What You Know: Start Your Memoir
By Leah Lancione
Writers often advise other writers or want-to-be authors to “write what you know,” so shouldn’t writing a memoir of your own life be effortless and uncomplicated? Well, to be honest, the process may not be as easy as just taking a pen to paper or setting your fingers to computer keys because our lives are not always neat little packages. However, it’s often the case that the more convoluted your life has been, the more interesting the story could be. The reader wants to be taken on a journey, to learn about your life and the mistakes you made and lessons you learned along the way.
Convoluted or not, there does have to be some structure to your life’s story. Though memoirs tend to serve a diary-like function—highlighting one heartbreak, disappointment or joyful moment at a time—there must be a theme that intertwines moments and events together. The tricky part is deciding which events or memories to emphasize and which to tuck away in the depths of your heart. For example, would you highlight the birth of your child after years of infertility or your first job? Well, the first situation would certainly offer more opportunities to strike an emotional chord with the reader, but if your first real job was manning a Navy torpedo boat during World War II alongside future President John F. Kennedy, that would make for some interesting subject matter. Choose to focus on the most riveting, thought-provoking or symbolic events—whether happy or tragic—to capture your readers’ attention. Note: Do not chronologically relay every happening in your life as you would in your journal. You’ll lose your readers along the way. Again, select the events that provided you with a life lesson that can be tied into your theme, whether it’s finding yourself, learning your inner strength, or growing up, etc.
While you are relaying the most poignant memories of your past, be sure to describe the people and places that serve as secondary “characters” and backdrops for your chapters. Allow these supporting elements to shed more light on the essence of who you are, your hopes, fears and inner struggles. For example, a recounting of a cross-country drive in a beat-up Ford with fellow beatniks could provide a vehicle for illustrating your slightly tortured-artist sentiments or a troubled past. Hey, if you scaled Mt. Ranier, your description of reaching the summit and the overwhelming panoramic vistas witnessed could elucidate an aspect of your outlook on life, sense of self or continual pursuit of self-discovery.
Poet and writer of the renowned memoir “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou, described such situations as living in a junkyard and traveling in Mexico to show her journey to becoming a strong, self-assured African American woman. You can use your experiences to illustrate your life as well.
Angelou is a phenomenal and accomplished writer, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have the capacity to paint spell-binding pictures for your readers.
Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote “Eat, Pray, Love,” told of her travels through Italy, India and Indonesia and the lessons she learned after leaving her career, marriage and comfortable life to find out what she really wanted out of life. Obviously the memoir and her recollections resonated with readers because it was recently made into a feature film.
Similarly, Gen. Colin Powell’s memoir “My American Journey” allows readers to peek into the inner-workings of his mind, exposing his hopes, aspirations and observations of his country. Readers enjoy getting a uncommon glance into the private world of such a prominent public figure. It’s as if the reader gets to see a whole new perspective of someone.
In Lucille Ball’s memoir “Love, Lucy,” which graced the New York Times Best Seller list, the “Queen of Comedy” expressed how the death of her father and abandonment by her mother helped turn her into an intense and spirited young girl who constantly sought attention. So, again, write what you know—the life lessons learned will come out naturally. Just start writing. You can edit later.
Also, don’t be afraid to enlist the insight of siblings, parents or friends who may be able to offer you an alternative perspective to something you experienced or assessed in a particular way. Ask for descriptions of your behavior that you may not have recognized or things you may not remember saying or doing.
Good advice will always come from published writers. Visit your local library or bookstore to scour the pages of writing how-to books by prolific writers like Stephen King, who wrote “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.” Another good book to check out is Anne Lamott’s work, “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” It’s not only chock-full of clever tips, but it is entertaining.
Instead of numerically listing steps and writing exercises, the best advice is to start writing. Try to write at least a page a day and before you know it you’ll have something to work with. There is no real magic formula to get this done. You just have to relinquish your creative and nostalgic juices and let it flow.