When you teach a writing class, you often get students who want to share their personal writing. I don’t mind a bit, in fact I encourage my students to share as much as they’d like to.
One of my students recently handed me a multi-chaptered piece that he was working on. It was a memoir of his life. Although there was a lot of good information, and even though he had a good voice in his writing, the piece was not going to go far without a major revision.
What memoir isn’t
First of all – a memoir is not a diary. It’s not about what you do on a day-to-day basis.
What a memoir is
A memoir is a story of how you got from here to there. In its rawest form it’s like a game of Candy Land.
“Here” is where a life changing event occurs. This life changing event can be a death or a journey, but like the acceptance of a task in the hero’s journey, it has to start you on your path to your “there.” Once that opening event has been established you can then go to a backstory that tells your readers how you got to your life changing event. But you need to begin at the beginning so that your reader can join you.
After your life changing event, or starting point has been decided, you’ll need to figure out where your ending will be. The end of your story is not “I got better and went off into the sunset”, it is more along the lines of “because of this episode in my life I have changed for the better and here’s how and what I did as a result.”
Think of the story of “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” It’s the story of a hiker whose arm got caught under a rock and who then had to cut his arm off in order to survive. The caught arm is the life changing event. How he ultimately dealt with that loss (which triggered healing from previous losses) and how he grew in self-confidence is the ending. The pages of the book tell of how he went from “here” to “there.”
When you know where you are starting and where you are ending, then like any kind of effective journey EVERY SINGLE scene in that memoir needs to help you on the path from here to there. If it doesn’t then it’s simply filler and you need to get rid of it.
Pretend your story is like a game of Candy Land. While you might spend some time along the way in places like the Peppermint Stick Forest or Lollypop Woods, your job as a writer will be to keep your journey moving forward until you reach your ending (which in this example is that lovely gingerbread house we all wanted to live in as children.)
Oh sure, you might slide into a back story (Rainbow Trail), or you might jump ahead in time (Mountain Pass) to make a point, but everything, absolutely everything you write should propel you forward and eventually lead your reader to your ending.
Piece of cake right? Or should I say peanut brittle?
If you’re a memoir writer, the next time you get lost in your story take a look at a Candy Land playing board to remind of you of where you’ve started and where it is you still need to go on your journey.
Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.
Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.