By: Marilyn L. Davis
Memoirs are hot topics again. Like all literature, memoir goes in and out of favor. However, with so many people blogging, self-publishing, and “knowing their story will touch millions”, there is ample opportunity to write a good and bad memoir.
Since my memoir, Finding North: A Woman’s Journey from Addict 2 Advocate is with the editor, I don’t have to focus on the product but have time to write about the planning and process of memoir writing, because it’s within the planning and processing that we improve upon the story. That is not to say that we embellish, mislead or outright lie in our memoir, but we do enhance the events, and concentrate on the emotions, thoughts, and conflict of the protagonist – and that’s us.
One of the best ways to accomplish this is to create a bell curve and decide a starting point in your life, remembering that memoir is the story from the life, not a life story, so it’s okay to start your memoir at 14, 39, or 55.
If you look at the life of a butterfly, you see the stages. At each juncture in the life of the butterfly, there are visible transformations. Is one greater, more traumatic, or profound than the next? Granted, we’re not going to conduct an interview with the Monarch to find out, but we can see that some look more attractive or result in a more compelling image than the next.
The memoir would not go from egg to adult, but might convey the transformation from chrysalis to butterfly. Just as someone reading knows that the butterfly began as an egg, people realize that we were children even if we are not writing about those years in our memoir. We’re writing about a part of our life cycle, just as the butterfly has cycles and stages.
Using my memoir title isn’t shameless publicity; it’s that the title helps you understand where we’re going – we’re finding North. Even though we don’t know what that is yet, and might suspect it isn’t just a direction, we understand that it took a journey to find it; that’s the plot.
We can also surmise that I’m an addict so we can anticipate some of the conflicts, and we know that I changed to an advocate, again, the title tells us that. For this memoir, starting with childhood would be cumbersome and somewhat dull and not have as much to do with the story, as starting it at thirty-five, although I can reference events from earlier if they reinforce the overall theme. If the information you want to include does reflect back to an earlier time, make sure it is relevant to the memoir. You can refer to stages of your life if they enhance the story line, like discussing the caterpillar stage if it helps advance the narrative.
Each writer has to decide which events in their lives are exciting, educational, or entertaining enough to get and keep readers, however, every event must fundamentally enhance and move the narrative along – that’s the upward curve of the bell or egg to caterpillar, or if the narrative begins later, then it’s the transformation from chrysalis to adult butterfly.
We can reference a brief episode or several from an earlier time if it corresponds to the overall theme of our memoir.
During the upward movement of the journey, there will be points of conflict, stalls, delays, or barriers to reaching the climax or height of the story.
On Top of the Curve; Heading Home
The energy of that climactic event cannot be sustained, and the writing enters the downhill slope or the denouement. We know at the arch, there is the ‘Aha’ moment; and how disheartening it would be if the moment did not result in actions that reinforced the realization. For readers, it’s breathing room or a sigh of relief.
While it is a downward slant on the bell curve, it is not anti-climactic. There are still events that demonstrate the transition, changes and often character transformations that the writer experienced, and there is room to have excitement within those passages as well.
Memoirs often convey a universal lesson or message, and when written in a compelling manner, readers are entertain, encouraged or educated.
The End is in Sight
Once again, it is up to the writer to determine a logical end to their memoir. Back to Finding North. I named the recovery home that I opened in 1990, North House. There are many references to North in native cultures, and my mentor was a 74-year old Native American. A chance encounter with him set up a chain of events that eventually encouraged me to open the house.
That direction represents rest, renewal and cleansing. Each of those aspects is what transpires for us in recovery. We stop our use; we renew connections lost to our addiction, and we cleanse our body, emotions, and negative thoughts.
Again, since this is a memoir, there is a logical end to the piece. I closed North House in 2011. Therefore, I have a real cut off time that concludes the memoir.
Anything that has happened beyond closing would logically have to be “Beyond North” and we’ll leave that for another day. I’m not being flip in telling you to leave subsequent life events for another day. If you are writing memoir rather than an autobiography, you’ve got to end your piece at a logical point in your life.
Some writers prefer to work backward or what I call reverse writing. They view an individual outcome or event as the culmination of their message and then trace it back to the source or origin of the transformation. They know when they emerged their changed self and reflected back on the decline of self or the beginning of the adversities. They go from butterfly to egg if you will. And in the final analysis, we are writing in reverse with memoir.
Even when the memoir ends, the life does not. No, I’m not trying to be profound, but stopping the memoir is difficult for some.
Because we’re still here, more happened after the years recorded in the memoir, and some writers have excellent material for those later years. But that additional material is like darlings, save them and write another memoir or sequel.
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