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Consider opening your life story narrative with one of the happiest, most memorable, unusual or exciting events, or a turning point. Create an air of mystery so the reader will want more. This is how Rust begins her breast cancer memoir:
I am afraid of chemo. I picture being strapped into an electric chair and hooked up to an assortment of machines that will do weird things to me. I'll be radioactive, glow in the dark. My hair will fall out instantly, my skin will turn gray. I'll look like the walking dead. Or maybe I'll be too weak to walk at all. The treatment will take days. It will hurt. My outwardly healthy-looking body will deflate like a balloon with each hit to my system, until I'm a shadow of my former self. My clothes will hang on skin and bones. There will be dark rings around my eyes, a shadowy pallor, a gaunt look about me. My kids won't recognize me. I won't recognize myself. I won't be able to concentrate. Life will become a blur, one medical moment after another.
Rather than beginning with the day she was diagnosed, she plunges us into chemotherapy—the most terrifying part of the whole ordeal, perhaps even scarier than her own mortality or losing a breast. Everyone is afraid of chemo, and Rust becomes our voice for those unspeakable fears. Though the opening portrait is grim, we continue to read because we want to see—and believe—that it will be better than this, that there is hope.
All good stories—whether fiction, nonfiction or memoir—have these basic elements:
Conflicts. Things, places or people who get in the main character's way, preventing him or her from achieving goals or desires. The story shows how the character overcomes these obstacles—or doesn't. Do wrap things up by the story's end; unresolved conflicts only frustrate readers.
A beginning, middle and end. "If you, the writer, are not certain what your story is, you'll quickly lose your readers," says Homer H. Hickam Jr., author of Rocket Boys: A Memoir. He advises "choosing only those episodes in your life that keep the story on track." While you may have a main plot and a couple of subplots, ask yourself whether each scene is relevant to those plots. If you cut that scene, will the story stand fine without it? If so, then it's not relevant to your memoir.
Believable, sympathetic characters. You're writing about real-life people, who by their very nature of existence should be believable. But some writers tend to portray those they love through rose-colored glasses or those they despise too harshly.
Character evolution. As in fiction writing, characters in a memoir must grow and change, usually as a result of conflicts and resolutions. Tell the reader why you made certain life decisions. Include details that led to resolutions. Reflect on your past; don't just record it.
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