The Art of Memoir: Telling Your Story

American writer John Barth said, “Everyone is the hero in their life story.” But where and how do you begin to tell your story?

Memoir differs from an autobiography in that it generally examines a small sliver of your life story rather than its entirety. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, is not a retrospective of a celebrated American writer’s career, but a deeply personal reflection on the weeks and months following the sudden loss of her husband and her daughter’s simultaneous multiple life-threatening illnesses. Both a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Year of Magical Thinking is a personal favourite of mine, and a classic example of the genre.

Begin by thinking about the major events in your life: What “sliver” of your life story do you want to tell?

A helpful tool to identify the core of your story is to look at The Hero’s Journey, a template used since the dawn of storytelling. In this model, the hero is living a regular life, perhaps not happily, but content, when something happens, usually dire, either initiated by them or to them. They then go on a quest to solve the problem and eventually return to their old life, but with lessons learned and their character improved. The quest introduces the reader to other characters that help the hero along the way and keeps the story moving.

In the case of memoir, you are the hero, and the quest is your journey. This quest can be surviving an illness, divorce, grief, or anything that profoundly changes you. What was your problem, your struggle, and how did you resolve it?

Beyond the actual story, a memoir tries to make sense of the experience. How did you get through it? What coping mechanisms did you use? What did you learn? What insights can you offer a reader?

Memoir writing applies the same basic techniques as fiction writing: “plot” and “character” arc and development, pacing, voice, etc. (Re)construct compelling “scenes” that show what happened. Make the reader want to turn the page by avoiding too much self-reflection and interior thought. Cultivate your author voice and keep it consistent.

We’ll explore more memoir tips and techniques in future blogs but, in the meantime, read as much and as many different memoirs as you can, as well as books on writing memoir. Two of my personal favourites are Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, and Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction.

Everyone is a hero, and everyone has a story. If it is your dream to tell yours, consider our manuscript accelerator workshops to help get you started.

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