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Writing a Memoir: What Is It About?
Writing a Memoir: What Is It About?

Writing a memoir is not the easiest thing in the world to do. With a little preparation, however, you can avoid many of the common roadblocks and hurdles that novice writers often face. Most importantly, you have to know what your story is about.

Know Your Story's Focus

Remember, your memoir is not an autobiography, so you are not going to write about your entire life. It is time to get focused and decide what period of your life you feel it is important for you to write about.

A memoir is a look back on a particularly significant time in your life, not a therapy session. Your goal is to find the truth while looking at each person and event from every angle. It is not a time to vent or dwell on the negative. Pain and hardship does not necessarily make a story. Of course, the pain and suffering of your life is important, but you must also write about all of that is positive to give balance to your story.

When thinking about what aspect of your life you should focus on, it is a good idea to start with what preoccupies you. While some people will suggest the usual jumping off points, such as the day you got married and the first day of school, it is important to remember that the meaning behind the incidents and relationships of our lives is what makes our stories unique. What stories or episodes of your life can you not stop thinking about? Which people from your past remain ingrained in your thoughts? What do you obsess about? What stories do you tell that you are really passionate about? What life events haunt you? The past that we often avoid talking about is very often the past that we should be talking about. Writing should be about discovery. That discovery should elicit both pain and joy in ourselves, as well as our readers. You must push yourself to the depths of your soul if you are interested in discovering real truth. Like life, writing offers the greatest rewards for the greatest risks.

Know Your Story's Theme

Theme is the abstract idea that is expressed through your story. The theme is not the same thing as the story or subject. The theme is the deeper meaning and overall message of the story. The theme of a fable is its moral. The theme of a parable is its teaching. The theme of a piece of fiction, as well as a memoir, is its view about life and how people behave.

Your memoir's theme is not presented directly but through the story you tell. As the writer, your job is to communicate on a common ground with the reader so that the general underlying truths behind your story connect you and your reader. Theme serves as a unifying factor that helps you sift through the stories and characters of your life so that you are better able to connect with the world around you.

Some common themes for memoirs include dealing with war, losing a child, coping with an illness or handicap, starting your life over in midlife, finding God, and recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction. While these themes are universal, you must find a way to put your unique twist on them.

Some more broad examples of themes include ambition, jealousy, beauty, loneliness, betrayal, love, courage, loyalty, duty, perseverance, fear, prejudice, freedom, suffering, happiness, and truth.

Know Your Audience

Most writers write to be read, so unless you do not plan on allowing anyone to read your work, you must decide who your target audience for the memoir is going to be. Whether your audience is your family and close friends or a more general, broader audience, you need to ask yourself what is in it for your reader.

Writing a memoir implies that you believe that your life story is a worthwhile subject that must be told. While you are the source for your memoir, readers must find meaning, value, inspiration, and information. One hopes the truths and realizations that you uncover along the way will move and surprise your reader and render your recollections into stunning illumination.

The Six-word Biography

Another interesting exercise to help narrow and clarify the focus and theme of your memoir is to write a six-word biography. The idea is based on Ernest Hemingway's legendary six-word story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." When limited to just six words, you are forced to really specify your theme. You may just find a title as well. However, do not worry about topping Hemingway's six-word biography. It cannot be done.

Here are some of the more famous entries from various authors:

* Danced in fields of infinite possibilities. (Deepak Chopra)

* Mushrooms. Clowns. Wands. Five. Wig. Thatched. (Amy Sedaris)

* I always suffered fools fairly well. (Richard Ford)

* Revenge is living well, without you. (Joyce Carol Oates)

* Fifteen years since last professional haircut. (Dave Eggers)

* Well, I thought it was funny. (Stephen Colbert)

Here are some of the more obscure entries:

* Gin joints. Love affairs. No relation. (Dean Ellis)

* Savior complex makes for many disappointments. (Alanna Schubach)

* Same mistakes. Over and over again. (Matthew Oransky)

* Made a mess. Cleaned it up. (Amy Anderson)

* Fact-checker by day, liar by night. (Andy Young)

* Everyone who loved me is dead. (Ellen Fanning)

* Dad wore leather pants in Reno. (John Falk)

Exercises: Focus and Theme

1. Think of a popular family story that you have heard throughout the years. Decide what the theme of the story is and then rewrite the story, never straying from that theme.

2. Read the story you wrote down, this time making observations and judgments of the story and characters. What do their actions mean to you, to them, and to the world?

3. Rewrite the story, this time incorporating your thoughts from question No. 2.

4. Think about a few more popular family stories, and repeat the above process. This time, finish the following statements: "I used to think this story was about.... But now I think it's about..."

5. Make a list of ways you can focus your memoir, particularly focusing on defined periods of time; for example, "the year I moved out of my parents' home" or "the year I got sick."

6. Make a list of themes that you believe could carry your memoir, such as your relationship with food or sex or your fear of commitment.

7. Write a short story revolving around one of your stories from questions 5 or 6 as if you were telling it to your closest confidant. Reread it see if it rings true and sounds like you are telling it. Continue to rewrite it until it sounds authentic.

How To Deal With The Main Character: You

Unless you are a narcissist or have a giant ego, you may find it challenging to write an entire book about yourself. Even the most talented writers find that psychology plays a heavy role when writing about their own lives. We tend to bury pain and traumatic events. We lie to ourselves. We hide our shame. We even create false memories. Therefore, how do you write an honest memoir when even you are lying to yourself? In order to find the truth, you must begin the process with an open yet critical mind. As we have already learned, you must challenge yourself every step of the way and look at your life from every possible angle.

Facing Your Fears

Shame is one of the hardest pieces of ourselves to confront. Whether our shame is what we did or what was done to us, we hate the way these memories make us feel. What do we do? We often bury the memories or create different versions of them, so much so that they become ingrained in our minds. When considering the painful and shameful memories for your memoir, you will likely be confused as to what to do with them. Should you include them or leave them out?

A memoir should be just as much about healing as it is about celebration of life. Pain and suffering, shame and embarrassment shade everyone's life. Understanding where they come from is one of the keys to a healthy and satisfying life.

When you begin to think about your memoir, you will likely wrestle with every detail that was shameful, illegal, immoral, or just flat-out embarrassing. While many of these difficult memories are private, they are very much a part of your life. That is not to say you must include every adverse thought or experience in your memoir, but you do need to be aware of them. After all, people do not read memoirs to torture themselves with pain. Readers want to read about hope, about overcoming adversity, about rising up.

However, without edgy moments, your memoir will bore your reader. Those edgy memories are what make up a writer's best friends: conflict and tension. By acknowledging the awkwardness and pain of the journey, you will not only make yourself appear more relatable but realize that those events of your life forced you to grow.

You do not need to have all of the answers, but you do need to try to find them. While it may be a struggle to understand your past, your struggle is what bonds you with the reader. You do not need to know exactly how you feel about a subject or event, but you must be willing to try out different opinions or your reader will lose respect for you.

What Will People Think?

Sometimes allowing others to learn about your shame is a much scarier prospect than dealing with it on your own. As much as we want to explore our memories and our lives, there is that voice in the back of our minds that says, "What will people think?" As much as we like to think otherwise, we really do care what other people think. We do not want to embarrass ourselves or our family and friends. It is the fear of doing just that that often stunts our writing.

While it may be scary, writing a memoir allows us to reclaim our own voice and stake a claim to our version of the story. Sure, because there may be multiple versions with multiple points of view, you will face outside criticism and challenges. But your version is no less valid than someone else's.

Nevertheless, the outside world, particularly your family, will keep you from writing and finding the truth if you do not take measures to combat it.

1. Create a protective environment for your writing and protect yourself from outside criticism until you are finished with your memoir.

2. Figure out the power dynamics in your family. If the critical voice stops you, write down what it says. Try to find the original source of those voices in your background.

3. If your inner voice is telling you that your mom or dad or friend will hate you for what you are writing, you cannot allow it to silence you.

4. Do not hit the delete button when you feel critical after writing.

5. If you are finding it particularly difficult to face certain memories truthfully, write in the second person. Pretend you are writing a novel and address yourself as a character. Instead of writing, "I was abused," write, "The girl was abused." Perhaps you can then describe what the girl was feeling without feeling so close to the subject.

6. When you have people read your work, make sure they are supportive and that they are not a part of the story.

How to Get to Know Yourself Better

Video Interview

Answering a few questions about your life in front of a camera is an excellent way to see yourself from a different angle. Write a half dozen or so questions and have a friend interview you. After a while, you may even forget you are on camera. Do not feel as though you have to tell your life story, just talk.

Examples of some questions to ask yourself are:

• What is your greatest accomplishment?

• What is your regret?

• What is one thing you always thought mattered but really does not?

• What advice do you wish someone had given you earlier?

• Is there a key to your happiness?

•What is the best meal you ever had?

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