HOW TO BUILD A MEMOIR by Denise Low
You can write your life story in six words. Like flash fiction, short-short memoir is a new genre, especially the six-word memoir. Here’s an example, Ernest Hemingway’s six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” A few words set the scene, classified section of a newSmith Magazine asked readers to write six-word memoirs in the spirit of Hemmingway. Here are some examples: “Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends”; “I still make coffee for two”; “Teaching 18-year-olds poetry; pray for me”; “Not quite what I was planning.” Twitter, NPR, and national publishers have sponsored six-word memoir publications. So, I challenge you to consider six words that create a memoir of your life, or a part of your life.
A memoir is a personal story about a dramatic or interesting part of a lifetime. I learned this classical definition of memoir when I read A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, first published in 1722, a novel, and not a truthful account. Defoe’s focus on the historic event creates the verisimilitude of memoir. It is an early prototype. Moments of genuine historic memoirs are embedded in Samuel Pepys’s diaries. Here is an excerpt from Diary Entry, September 2, 1666:
Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So, I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . .. By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So, I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . ..
So begins his recounting of the great London fire.
Pepys does several important things in this passage. He establishes his authority to recount the event—his high vantage point. His personal story exists within history, the dated entry, and geography. These are touchstones in a memoir. London in 1666. Barbara Boyen notes memoir is a historical subset of autobiography, “involving a public portion of the author’s life as it relates to a person, historic event, or thing.” (“What Is a Memoir,” Writing Nonfiction). Because people’s lives are not neat sequences, an important part of the process is editing out the useless information. Focus on a public event or social concern is a way to narrow the project. More on this later.
Here are some further considerations for memoir. The writer’s memory is the source for the writing, reliable or not. Dinty W. Moore writes, “Memoir has its roots in memory. Often, that memory may relate to childhood, with an adult writer looking back at her early life to consider how certain youthful experiences shaped and molded the person. . ..” (Truth of the Matter). That is an interesting paradox, the reflection on an earlier self, recounted after adult perspective. And then memory—how reliable is it, really?
As I was writing my first book-length memoir, The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival (University of Nebraska-Bison Books, 2017), I learned how memory as a source can cause difficulties. This came when I compared notes with siblings and cousins. Finally, I had to say, “This is how you remember it. My memory is different.” Memoir is not reportage. I did try to have at least one outside source for each major event, but my memory was the ultimate authority within this book. That contrast between the childhood self and adult narration creates the tension of memoir.
More on the role of memory—it is the far end of the historic fact spectrum. Patricia Hample and Elain May write, “Memoir and history regard each other across a wide divide. In effect, they’re goalposts marking the extremes of nonfiction. The turf that separates them—and connects them—is the vast playing field of memory” (Tell Me True). At a time of facts and alternative facts, the concept of subjectivity is vivid. False memories, implanted memories, confabulated memories—these all are terms for the fuzzy end of memoir, with factual historic events at the other end, on the way to mathematical equations.
Certain characteristics appear in most, if not all, memoirs. The point of view is an authorial “I” voice that engages the reader. If you write a memoir, or anything, the “voice” is one of the most important considerations—it needs to pull readers into the story. We all recognize a good storyteller’s voice. Also, a memoir is located in a geographic place and an historic time. These may be very important or background setting. Like social sciences of history and geography, a memoir includes verifiable facts—the public aspect of the memoir. It can use factional techniques; it shows rather than tells; and dramatizes through scenes with dramatic buildups, conclusions, and dialogue. Its style can be straightforward or adorned with heightened, poetic language.
One of the first masters of contemporary non-fiction prose is Truman Capote, whose In Cold Blood (1966) innovated fictional techniques to convey factual stories. The way the hybrid novel, and then the movie, portrayed the murders in Holcomb, Kansas, is controversial to those who live in that region. Selections and omissions of the storyteller create inconsistencies, slippage. Facts of the murder exist, and the law enforcement records of the criminals. Perspectives vary. A recent documentary interviews people who knew the Clutter family, who still mourn these very good people, in contrast to Capote’s focus on the murderers. I recommend Capote’s memoirist writings in Music for Chameleons, which includes his memoirist essay about In Cold Blood, "Handcarved Coffins." Then the movie Infamous (2006) is more about Capote than the crime, as is the 2005 movie Capote with Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Memoir is subjective to the highest degree, with main character shifts and more, and so always tentative.
Twenty-first century memoir is a hybrid form, mixing historic exposition with heightened language and fictional techniques. Literary nonfiction’s primary intent is beauty and/or entertainment over instruction. Genres of memoir can include: autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, diaries, letters, personal essays, personal critical essays, commentaries, reviews of works of art, nature writing, city writing, travel writing, science writing, true crime, meditations, journals, letters, and cultural commentary. Hybrid forms or “mixed genre” include fictionalized versions of the above or other combinations. Memoir exploits the rise of the lyrical essay in the late 20th century—Joan Didion’s writings are early favorites of mine, and there are many others. The essay may have many other topics than personal memory. The style of any good prose writer uses the lyricism of poetry.
Memoir is now part of a growing field, and market, of nonfiction prose. William Zinsser calls our time “the age of memoir” (Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir). Zinsser’s title emphasizes the creative side of truth-telling. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir was a sensation in 1999, making the bestseller list and winning the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Since then, sales for memoirs increased dramatically—Nielsen BookScan, notes an increase of 400 percent between 2004 and 2008—and readers’ appetites also have increased for kiss-and-tell, disaster, celebrity, political, and other types of memoirs.
Certain plotlines repeat in memoirs. Most common are childhood stories, those of coming of age, overcoming adversity, immigration, and rags to riches. Angela’s Ashes is a prime example of the latter. Survival memoirs can include medical adversities, accidents, and grief. Cancer memoirs are a genre unto themselves, as well as recovery from additions. More classical is the memoir that centers on historic events: a personal story set during Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnam Conflict, or the assassination of Martin Luther King. Topical memoirs have a personal story of a specific topic, like horse racing, life on Wall Street, traveling with the carnival, Hollywood careers, or food. My husband, Thomas Weso, has written a very successful food memoir, Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir (Wisconsin Historical Society Press), and the inclusion of recipes in this collection of family stories created a niche in the very popular food book category, which we were too naive to anticipate. Travel memoir is where a person describes a trip combined with personal stories. Double memoir is a story with the narrator sharing narration through letters or dual authorship. One of my professional workshop students, Alan Proctor, has an excellent memoir The Sweden File: Memoir of an American Expatriate based on his brother’s letters after he left the country to avoid Vietnam war-era military service. Lastly, a removed memoir is when the author narrates a story about someone else. My own memoir tells the story of my Delaware Indian grandfather, who suppressed his identity to survive Ku Klux Klan violence and other discrimination in Kansas.
So, if you wish to write memoir, voice is most important in a memoir, focus is second, and third is overall architecture. Each story requires a unique organization. Here are ways to think about overall structure. Most follow a simple timeline, like Black Elk Speaks, diaries, journals, and letters. Another strategy is geographic or space orientation, for a travel memoir. Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon is an example. As in movies, flashbacks, can work well, like Sally Carrighar’s Home to the Wilderness. If you wish to try something fancier, braiding several stories together is an option, with alternating two or strands, and one of my favorites of these is Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich. Or you can unfold themes, like, for example, organizing spices by flavor—salt, sour, bitter, sweet, heat, earthiness.
The best way to learn how to write a memoir is to read them. During my research, I noticed some best practices.
- Think about why you are writing this memoir. For my family memoir, I wanted to explain my grandfather’s Native identity to my children and grandchildren, first. Next, I wanted to inform those who are interested in Kansas and Native histories. So, an important question is audience? Family or public? General audience or educated in your field? How you choose vocabulary and style will depend on your reader.
- Focus the setting. Choose a short time frame in a specific place. Don’t try to cover too much or skip around, unless you have a clear plan (braiding, flashbacks, etc.).
- What is your vantage point? Are you an adult looking back on childhood, or are you speaking with the voice of a child? Whatever you choose, be consistent.
- Use colorful description and scenes to show your story. These add texture. Use just enough summary exposition for clarity.
- Layer your writing. Simple bare bones of Grandmother attending a one-room schoolhouse in winter is of little interest. Create a plot, of the day the raccoon attacked your dog, for example. Add a layer of description of the room. Dramatize the characters by how they look, act, and speak (you can reconstruct dialogue).
- Reflect, briefly, at high points in your dramas. This personal assessment gives depth to the memoir. I have read too many amateur memoirs that give the facts without reflection, and these become very drab.
- End with a significant discovery. How are you changed? How are people around you changed?
All of us owe it to our children and grandchildren to leave some heritage stories, as these help young people orient themselves and develop pride. My grandmother left a wonderful short collection of stories about growing up in turn-of-the-century San Antonio. I have typed them up and shared with all the relatives. I have written my own memoir about my grandfather, and I believe it helps fill in some historical gaps for others in this region and for Native peoples. I encourage you to write your memoirs by using your best storytelling voice, focusing on a particular time and place, creating an outline, and filling it in with textured scenes, memorable characters, and maybe some dialogue. Your six-word memoirs are a first step.
c. 2018 Denise Low. Please contact for reprint permission.
c. 2018 Denise Low. Please contact for reprint permission.
Denise Low teaches professional writing workshops on memoir. Contact kansaspoetry [at]gmail. Her memoir The Turtle's Beating Heart has earned favorable reviews from Kirkus, Library Journal, Forward Reviews, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Indian Country Today, World Literature Today, and many others.