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?
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.)
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?
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.
Yes, most comedians 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.’
You needn’t wonder if your endeavour may seem egotistical. It will. But why does a creative mind speak if not to say ‘Look 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]