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When you want to write a memoir, it’s difficult to know where to start. You hear people discuss themes, and character arcs, and think, “I just want to tell about my life. Just start at the beginning, y’know?”
Yes. And no.
Where exactly is the beginning?
And the beginning of what?
A memoir is not an autobiography. It’s a themed piece of writing about your life.
For example: The Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham, is about how she mentally puts her father’s suicide in some kind of orderly context (the point being that you really can’t, and this is her attempt to deal with a very messy situation.) Dry, by Augusten Burroughs is about his struggle with alcoholism.
Most people cringe when they hear the word theme, but it need not be intimidating. Think of it as a belt that holds pants up or cinches a dress at the waist. If you don’t wear it with your pants your crack will show, and without it the dress is bland. Likewise, the theme helps eliminate cracks in your story, whether they’re jumps in time or missing details. Theme also gives the story completion.
So you need to choose your theme, but often that’s difficult if you haven’t written anything yet. So choose a memory that sits in your chest so heavy that sometimes you can’t breathe. You know. That one about the thing on that one day?
Don’t worry about fleshing out details and such the first time you write a memory. You have to give the memory words on paper so you can massage them later.
And when you sit down, it helps to create a small ritual that puts your psyche in the right place. For me, it’s having a cup of coffee or tea in my Bad Kitties mug, my headphones, and the sound of a train. (Here’s what I listen to: Train Sounds)
So you write that memory, and it looks pitifully short. Just dashed-off paragraphs that don’t seem to mean much now that the memory’s there in black and white. Don’t stress it. Put it in a folder, and write another memory. Maybe it’s about a guy. Or your sister. Or your mom or dad. Write that memory, too. Put it in the folder with the other one, and write another memory.
After you’ve written four or five memories, take some time to write some lines about how you felt at the time, in each of the memories. What did you feel then? Did your feelings have the same tone, so to speak, in all of them, or were they different?
What stands out in these memories? What compels you to share them?
When we have this strong sense to tell our story, it often means an underlying theme resonates and will resonate with readers. I think many times we instinctively know this, even if we can’t articulate it. Find the feeling and write more about it. Find other memories in which you felt this way. Write the bare bones and stick them in the folder. You will come back to them later. For now, you must get the memories on the page.
Please tell me if you’ve started to write. I’d love to hear about it.
If you need inspiration for your hero, take a look at this guy: when everyone else was mocking Charlie Sheen, he took a stand. Add to that that he’s down-to-earth, he thinks strong women are sexy, he looks past physical beauty to the person within, and he’s freaking hilarious–oh, yeah, baby. My hero’s got a bit o’ Craig in him, all right.
“A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.”
— Martin Luther King Jr. (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
I’ve been struggling with my heroine’s over-arching goal. I keep tangling external goals with internal ones. My critique partner pointed out that the one I had was too “do-able,” adding, “I think Diana needs something that she wants desperately – something that is urgent – life or death or loss that if she loses it, her life will never be the same (or someone she cherishes will never be the same) something that she will walk on water to obtain if that’s what she needs to do.”
So. A character who won’t die for something isn’t fit to live, either, and that rings true for me. Characters with something huge at stake engage the reader immediately.
While I was looking for inspiration I came across some quotes that resonate, and I’m pinning them up while I write so they’ll remind me of key character traits.
Diana, my heroine, is a frustrated artist (painter) who runs a gun shop with her mother. A quote for her is from Bernard Shaw:
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
And these: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”— Maya Angelou
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
“One must pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while still alive.”— Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
My bad guy, as yet un-named, has this one:
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
— Abraham Lincoln
Mark, my hero, has these:
“In the years afterward, I fled whenever somebody began to understand me. That has subsided. But one thing remained: I don’t want anybody to understand me completely. I want to go through life unknown. The blindness of others is my safety and my freedom.” — Pascal Mercier
“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”— Confucius
Ultimately, this one will apply: “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” — Maya Angelou
One that will apply throughout the story:
“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong, it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”— Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
And this one reminds me of different ways to illustrate character:
“Your handwriting. The way you walk. Which china pattern you choose. It’s all giving you away. Everything you do shows your hand. Everything is a self-portrait. Everything is a diary.”— Chuck Palahniuk