How To Write Your Memoir

By | May 15, 2020

If you plan to write a memoir, STOP!

You may think detailing your life will be a cinch. After all, you know the main character well and the major scenes have already been structured by Fate.

A memoir is more than a string of anecdotes, polemic and flimsy justifications for misbehaviour.

A memoir is a story. One story about one life.

Begin by asking big narrative questions.

1. How do I capture my life story?

Be clear.

Murky ambiguity is favoured by some writers, critics and hipster/waiters, but it never makes a bestseller. Let’s assume you want to write a memoir that’s more than a diary with the dates erased. You want a readable book that sells. Clarity and purposeful narrative will keep a reader turning pages.

Write your life-story as a classic story, with three Acts and a clear protagonist. Why? So it will appeal to a wider readership than those already familiar with you.

Yes, it’s appealing to play with anti-structure, but this isn’t Year 5 free-poetry slackers’ class. Master your life in the 3-Act Missionary Position and the buzzing toys will follow.

This story structure will help you filter the events of your life. Look at the development process as you would for writing any classic story. Any line, scene, character, insight or witticism that doesn’t advance the story or relate to theme must be cut. (There goes Smuffy the kitten’s antics.)

2: What’s the purpose of my life?

As you can already see, this memoir stuff is not for wimps. Answering that simple question is the first step to explaining your life to a reader. Even nihilists must answer it (usually with a petulant ‘Nothing’, followed by a yearning cry, ‘Why doesn’t anyone like me?’) but if that’s what they believe, they must stick to their guns.

You were created for something, if not by God, then by the secular rationale you’ve worked out to explain the unknowable (see: ‘God’). You are guided by values you’ve imposed on yourself. Your story must demonstrate them.

Decide why you are alive. Deciding this may take months. Tough.

3. What is the theme of my life?

Theme is everything in any story. Everything must relate, no matter how distantly, to the single main theme. (Sorry for the Writing 101, but it never hurts to be reminded of what we know.)

Your theme is universal, not personal. (Imagine a world of writers. Who would pay for lunch?) Themes can be as broad as you like: ‘Go boldly’, ‘Love conquers all’ or ‘Skip lunch’.

What does your life teach others? What message does it express? Don’t squirm. If your life doesn’t have an apparent theme, why write about it?

Deciding the theme of your life is a killer. You can tiptoe around it, and a less-experienced publisher (or you as self-publisher) may let you get away with it. But will the reader?

4. What is my single-most active and clear characteristic, and how has it changed, if at all?

Any protagonist of quality can be boiled down to a single characteristic.

A story shows how that quality informs the decisions of the hero as she reacts to challenges. The hero eventually recognises her most active quality. She embraces, rejects or buckles under it. The End.

Tina Fey (Bossypants) began as the outsider and grew to be the cynosure. So decide how your life has driven you to address your essential nature. That is almost your story.

Your publishing marketers will need a logline, 27 words that sum up your story. They won’t be so keen to describe your book as ‘a multi-layered person’s meandering and haphazard journey through an interesting series of unrelated events, professions, relationships and roles in life, full of laughs, tears and intermittent sex’. A description that vague may as well include highlights from the 30 per cent of your life spent sleeping. And that story’s already been developed by every screenwriting student I’ve encountered.

5. What did I Unconsciously Emotionally Need all along?

If you had trouble deciding the theme of your life, you’ll find it here. Your answer may take a lifetime.

6. What if I can’t exactly remember what happened?

Personal truth is subjective, so it’s inevitable the facts in a memoir will be skewed in proportion or perspective. There is a gap between what you saw and what happened, what your conscious motivations were and what they really were. As a memoir writer, you are allowed to continue your lifelong habit of having an evolving perspective on things. Others can write their own memoirs. Accuracy thrives on more than one witness.

When it comes to dialogue, you won’t recall every single word said. So go with the gist of conversations. The other people involved won’t recall chats word-for-word unless you were married to them at the time.

7. Do I have to be funny, even if I’m bleak?

Yes, most comics are bleak but they write comically.

Humour is vital in any story, no matter how dark it may be. Humour reveals maturity, an ability to see things from various perspectives. A joke at your own expense goes a long way to proving your self-awareness. And a touch of comic cheek increases the emotional movement in any narrative. If you want your reader to cry, make ‘em laugh first. Only by lightness can we reveal the dark.

Don’t be afraid. Humour is a craft. You can learn its principles and practice them. Two masks signify Drama — one laughs, one weeps. They are of equal size and import. To avoid either is lazy. Apply them to your memoir or it’ll be as slap-face boring as hanging out with a humorless writer.

You already know comic principles in your DNA: compress tragedies, shift perspectives, change contexts, expose flaws, heighten stakes, exaggerate, distil, add a twist of lemon …

Practice saying: ‘It was hell at the time but I can laugh at it now.’

8. What if I seem conceited?

You needn’t wonder if your endeavour may seem egotistical. It will. But why does a creative mind speak if not to say ‘Listen at me!’ and to bend the world to its will? Besides, if someone buys your book, it’s a fair bet they think you’re worth reading about.

To avoid criticism for your pride in writing a memoir, avoid chest-beating. You’ve done great things — big deal, they’re already on public record. The reader is seeking secrets, your weaknesses, the moments you erred, the underbelly you’ve never revealed. Write honestly and fearlessly about your flaws and only the churlish will criticise your egomania. If you are an egomaniac, the announcement of your flaws won’t concern you.

9. Why write a memoir?

Writing is a journey of discovery, even if it’s you providing all the terrain. Only a beginner writes what they know at the start of the writing process. Write to discover who you really are. Anything else would be a dull exercise.

Be bold, be scared of every word you write. Your memoir is your epitaph, your epistle, your story. Your last word.

So don’t screw it up.

Tim Ferguson is author of the bestselling memoir Carry A Big Stick (Hachette).

May The Farce Be With You

By | April 10, 2020

The universe is a living entity where all things have a connection and affinity with each other. Following a path of peace, altruism, devotion and moderation is good. Giving yourself over to violence, genocide and hatred is evil. Peaceful cohabitation is better than totalitarianism. Sublimating ourselves to the higher power of universal love is the path to true happiness.

Am I describing the Christian faith? Buddhist? Islam? Scientology? Hare Krishna? No, the sentiments listed above are those of the Jedi faith, as outlined in the Star Wars saga.

If the recent New Zealand census results are anything to go by, thousands of Australians will be following the suggestion of a widely distributed e-mail to list Jedi as their religion on their census forms. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has chucked a wobbly over the prospect, threatening fines and prosecution for those who dare to raise their lightsabres in defiance of the upcoming information bonanza.

Bollocks to them. The ABS is all bark and no bite. Here’s why.

The Christian churches that will dominate in the census numbers base their faith on a book. A Good Book, sure, but just one book.

The Jedi faith, however, is based on more than a hundred books, four films and countless story cassettes, music albums, pillowcases, money boxes, toys, stationery and a vast variety of fashion accessories. If we’re comparing Christianity with the Path of the Jedi in terms of source material, Yoda and his brothers win three-fingered hands down.

Your average Jedi follower could recite word-for-word the sayings of Yoda with greater accuracy than most Christians could recite Bible passages.

The Path of the Jedi is known to countless millions. Its teachings do not incite violence or dissent. (No one ever blew up a Belfast school bus in the name of Darth Vader. If they had, the telltale scorch marks of a Deathstar ray would give them away.) The Jedi do not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion or even species, unlike some. The Jedi Path is user friendly, modern and free of ethnic rivalries and ancient hatreds. You could argue it’s a better religion than most.

So, when the ABS threatens to fine us $1000 for nominating Jedi as our chosen faith, don’t believe them.

How would a cross examination of the supposed Jedi unfold?

Q. You claim to believe in The Force. What is that exactly?
A. You might call it God, Allah or L.Ron.

Q. But this “faith” is simply the invention of one man’s imagination. 
A. Sorry, are you talking about Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha?

Q. Aren’t the teachings you claim to follow just part of a cynical money-making exercise? 
A. I’m Jedi, not Catholic.

Q. And what about the ludicrous beliefs of your faith – that humans came from other planets, that they whizzed about in spaceships and conversed with aliens races? 
A. Uh, sorry, that’s the government-recognised, non-tax-paying Church of Scientology you’re talking about there. Talk about wacky. Besides, Star Wars is a fiction where spaceships don’t whiz – they zoom and whoosh.

And so on. The lawyers advising the ABS to make such silly threats must be laughing all the way to the spaceport.

A magistrate must, by law, presume that a defendant who’s nominated Jedi as their religion on their census form is telling the truth, until the ABS can prove otherwise. Given the attributes of the Jedi Path, one could safely argue it is a religion. Any prosecution must be based upon the presumption that the defendant does not believe in the Jedi Path. Good luck with that one.

I should come out and say that, as a slightly embarrassed Star Wars fan and duster, hugger and plastic bag-wrapper of reportedly the largest Star Wars toy collection in Australia, I will not be nominating my faith as Jedi. While I have a vested financial interest in seeing my anal-retentive treasures transformed into religious artefacts, I find the idea of religious faith a bit square. (As for you other lonely, friendless geeks out there, don’t bother robbing me, the toys were hidden a long time ago in a warehouse far, far away.)

But there is a deeper issue here, one which will surface in the build-up to census day. As the Jedi shenanigans have shown, the information age is rife with possibilities for dissent and mischief. It is also a time when private information about all Australians is a source of intense auctioning between marketing companies. The information to be gathered by the ABS will be worth millions if it falls into the wrong hands.

If you are satisfied that every single one of the people working for the ABS is honest, fine. I am sure they are. If you believe in your heart that your private details, even something as deeply held and precious as your religious faith, are the government’s business, terrific. And if the mishaps of the last census collection (hundreds of forms lost, stolen or found floating in street drains) do not concern you, that’s just great. Fill in your form with all the details of your life, content in the belief the information will not be misused, misplaced or e-mailed to countless millions.

If you are not so sure, you may wish to make other arrangements and risk prosecution.

May the Force be with you.

By Tim Ferguson, The Age, 23rd April 2001