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Write a Memoir to Remember!

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Research and context

When my online students are asked what sources they will use to write their memoirs, those writing about their own lives and the recent past respond with "my memories." That is what a memoir is drawn from—your memories—but there are still considerations to keep in mind regarding context.

You may be writing about an event in the 1950s, or as recently as the 1990s, and not realize you still need to explain things. For example, suppose you're writing about your time in the Navy during the Korean War. You are describing the training you went through and mention wearing a Mae West. Will your readers understand this term? Along with explaining what a Mae West was—a life jacket—you may also need to do some background research to help your reader understand why a life jacket was named for this actress. Indeed, will readers in their 20s today know who Mae West was? That could require further explanation. In general, don't assume that your readers will understand slang terms or pop culture references.

While your memoir begins with your memories, you should also look to others for additional details and background information. When James McBride was writing The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, he interviewed "probably a hundred people," even though his story was based on his own memories. "I sat down and talked to people, and I got information from them that I didn't necessarily remember that clearly. So I interviewed all sorts of people who could give me details."

And don't worry if another person's memories conflict with what you remember—you will never convince the other person that it really happened another way. Tell the story as you remember it, then you could always add, "My sister remembers another version, however. ..."

The details

While writing your memoir, probe as deeply as you can to fill out a scene or an event. Use photographs, letters, diaries, interviews or background research to explain, reflect and fill out your narrative. In the details, you will begin to make sense of your life experiences. Some budding memoirists rush through a scene without stopping to smell the rain on the pavement. Granted, you don't want to overwhelm your readers with details; you have to keep the story moving along. If the scene or event is crucial, slow down and describe it so that the reader can experience it with you.

Keep the faith

Agent Jillian Manus advises that if your memoir doesn't attract someone's attention right away, go the self-publishing route. She, along with other agents and editors, keep an eye on self-published books. It also can help to enter competitions. One inspirational memoir that won the Writer's Digest National Self-Published Book Awards, Kenny Kemp's Dad Was a Carpenter: Blueprints for a Meaningful Life, was picked up by HarperCollins San Francisco in a six-figure deal. So get that memoir written and in print!

Reprinted with permission of the author. Originally published in Writer's Digest, July 2002.


Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is the author of You Can Write Your Family History, Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers & Researchers, and several other titles. She is a freelance editor and writing mentor, specializing in memoirs, family history narratives, biographies, and other nonfiction works. She can be reached through her Web site: www.SharonCarmack.com.



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