From a writer’s conference lecture last October and conversations with fellow writers at the Vermont writer’s residency:
1. The average length of a successful memoir is 260 pages. Some will be shorter, some longer, but this is the average.
2. It is okay to change people’s names, locations, relationships and other identifying characteristics in order to protect them and you.
3. It has to be the truth, but it is also “to the best of your recollection.”
4. There must be an arc. You’re a different person at the end than you were in the beginning. There must also be a change-lesson, a reason why people would care.
5. Know who your audience is. It will affect the language you use to tell the story. You are telling it to them.
6. Be careful with adjectives and adverbs.
7. Use both external internal dialogue. External for action, internal for emotion.
8. When looking for a publisher, start by finding the agent, publisher and editors for the memoirs that you love.
9. Three recommended memoirs (and links to their descriptions):
A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas
Marrying George Clooney – Musings From a Midlife Crisis by Amy Ferris
Dancing at the Shame Prom, a collection of confessions from 27 women, edited by Amy Ferris and Hollye Dexter
10. Four recommended books on writing memoir:
Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington
A very readable “textbook” that covers all the basics and also analyzes some memoirs and how the writers tackled certain issues.
Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser
Memoir writers like Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison or Annie Dillard write about how they wrote their memoirs: what they struggled with, what their goals were for the book, how they finally found their voice, how their families reacted, etc.
Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas
A memoir about writing memoir presented in little snippets of musing on writing, everyday life, and how she came to write her memoirs Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life.
Writing Life Stories: How To Make Memories Into Memoirs, Ideas Into Essays And Life Into Literature by Bill Roorbach
Friendly instruction and stimulating exercises on how to turn life stories into vivid personal essays and memoirs by learning to open up memory, access emotions, shape scenes from experience, develop characters, and research supporting details.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on these or other books in the comment section. This newbie memoir writer is still learning and reading up all these great books and authors.
March 1, 2013 at 11:17 pm
Thank you for sharing these tips – they’re great!
I am curious, though, as to why you recommend the specific books mentioned in this blog post?
March 1, 2013 at 11:28 pm
Glad you find the info helpful. I recommended these books because they were recommended to me by writers I respect.
March 2, 2013 at 12:19 am
Really interesting and smart tips. Thank you.
March 2, 2013 at 12:31 am
My pleasure. Glad they’re useful to you.
March 2, 2013 at 1:51 pm
I loved this and posted it on my ASK THE BOOK DOCTOR fb page. Great stuff.
March 2, 2013 at 3:01 pm