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.