Guest post: So You Want to Write a Memoir?

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Guest post: So You Want to Write a Memoir?

Thrilled to have another guest post at the KMD blog! Author and writing teacher Kate Walter, a fellow member of Freelance Success with me, shares her advice on writing a memoir. She’s got some great tips!—Kristine

 

                                          So You Want to Write a Memoir
by Kate Walter
A  memoir is not an autobiography, so you must find the right container for your story. What is it about? Your difficult relationship with your famous father?  Your struggle to come out as gay in rural America? Your breaking away from a religious family?
A memoir needs an arc, a trajectory, a focus. The narrator must start some place and end up some place else. Not necessarily a  physical place but an emotional place. There has to be a struggle (conflict) and wisdom gained. You are not just telling your story but reflecting upon what happened and how these events impacted upon you and changed your life.
It took me three drafts to figure out the container for my debut memoir: Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing (Heliotrope Books, June 2015).  In the first draft I was just writing out my story and creating major scenes but it lacked a narrative thread.Looking4aKiss_Cover(1)
My second draft had more structure but it ended with me getting my heart broken when my 26 year relationship ended. The third draft, (which I sold), began with the break up and showed how I healed my life. I found a universal theme. The reader is rooting for the narrator to get her life back together and laughing along with her as she tries internet dating at 60.
For  me, I had to write out three drafts until I  figured out the  narrative arc. I was also writing and publishing personal essays while working on my book. Essays can be woven into your memoir and writing essays can help you find the focus or container for your memoir. I recently reread an essay I wrote 5 years ago and now I  see how the first 50 pages of my book are an expansion of this tight personal essay.
Readers like books where the narrator draws back the curtain and takes them inside an unfamiliar world, whatever that might be. You are allowed to change names and some identifying  characteristics (unless the person’s real  identity is relevant to the story). Of course, you must  note this in your manuscript. But you cannot change the truth of the story.
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When you begin  writing, forget what anyone will think. Just start creating pages. Get something down. Start by writing dramatic scenes and good dialogue, (like a novel). Try to turn off your internal critic (my writing sucks) and your external critic (my mother will have heart attack if she reads this). I know this is hard, but just keep going.
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Don’t worry if you are writing the first chapter or the second or where it will
fit. (Trust me things will get rearranged as you write more drafts.) A chapter  that was originally in the back of my book landed up near the front in the final draft.
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If you are serious about getting published I  recommend joining a workshop or
taking classes. You must get feedback on your pages from other writers you trust.
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Rewrite as you get feedback and create your chapters. When done with your best draft, hire a book doctor/editor to read the entire manuscript; then rewrite some more.
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This is a long journey- it took me years-  but it can be very rewarding. For me it was cathartic. Writing my memoir was literally part of my healing process.
The books listed below are good resources and I recommend them.
 Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir by William Zinsser
Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington.
Journey of Memoir: The Three Stages of Memoir Writing by Linda Joy Myers
Bottom line: if you want to write a memoir, you must get started. Good luck!
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Kate Walter is the author of Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing (Heliotrope Books, June 2015). She teaches writing at CUNY and NYU.