September 29, 2020
Memoir: Don’t Let Its Definition Hold You Back From Writing One
by Nancy Chadwick
Are you a writer who's working on a memoir and sadly believes it’s not one because you feel it doesn’t meet the definition? “Memoir is supposed to be about one specific incident during one part of my life, and I’ve got a few of them over a couple of decades,” you say. Though you may not be able to pinpoint a single incident that happened during a brief time in your life, you believe you have a story to tell, and that you should be able to share it.
A restricted definition of memoir should not limit a writer’s ability to make sense of her past, come to understand her present self, and write about it.
Whether your memoir is incident-based or thematic, “The lessons we share with the world about our own journeys can help others to view their own lives through a different lens,” says Mary Karr, author of The Art of Memoir. And what a means to connect with your reader through memoir!
I told my story narrating multiple experiences over three decades. In my memoir Under the Birch Tree—memories of my mother dressing me for my first day of kindergarten, lack of belonging in high school, finding a place to be in college—is a story of discovering connections and finding home, thematically structured narrating a then journey and reflecting on it through my now self. My past experiences and present reflection connects with my reader about what I learned.
Regardless of any definition of memoir, you can write yours. And you should. Here are a few suggestions I put together that I hope will help you with your memoir writing.
Make it a story.
Simply stated, you are the main character with a starting point, who faces conflict(s), resolves it (them) in some way, and then in the end, learns something from it all.
Make it relatable.
Enable your reader’s empathetic and sympathetic side by sharing experiences your reader can and will relate to. My parents divorced when I entered high school. With home connections broken and facing a new, unfamiliar place, I felt I didn’t belong. Who hasn’t at some point in their life felt they haven’t belonged somewhere?
Include only those experiences that clearly relate to the story you are telling.
Your experiences must be linked to your story; there should be a reason why you are including them. For example, in my memoir I link my experience of wandering my parent’s bedroom as a child and noticing their personal items—my mother’s lipstick, one more worn down than the other, her favorite color of nail polish, her petite bottle of Nina Ricci perfume, my dad’s keys, wallet and wristwatch in a tidy pile on his small wooden tray—as connections I have to my parents as they are my familiar, like home.
What did you learn?
Share with your reader your inner dialogue as it discusses lessons learned from self-reflection of the past.
Memoir shows personal growth.
Make sure your story reflects this. Your reader will want to see this in you as they cheer you on for all good things that are ahead for you.
Lastly, what does your story do for your reader?
Through your story, give readers a reason to find hope, optimism, or a new way of looking at an old dilemma for themselves. Give these as gifts to your reader!
Under the Birch Tree narrates a chain of relatable experiences as I find my place to be, my home, and how connecting to a birch tree helped me to do that. Though I have neither a single tragic incident nor a specific period of time it happened, it is memoir.
I am saddened to hear of memoir writers who are discouraged because they believe their work is not memoir, when in fact, it is and it can be written. A mere definition of memoir should not hold back any memoir writer from writing her book. It didn’t for me.
Nancy Chadwick grew up in a north suburb of Chicago. After receiving a journalism degree at Marquette University, she got her first job at Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago. After ten years, she couldn’t get to where she wanted to be in the agency business, so she reinvented herself and turned to banking. After another ten years she realized she wasn’t a banker, so she quit and started to write, finding inspiration from her years in Chicago and San Francisco, and putting to use her knack for writing descriptive scenery, an ear for dialogue, and experience in human interaction.
Nancy is the author of Under the Birch Tree.
Her essays have been published in the anthologies of The Magic of Memoir and Illinois’ Emerging Writers. Other essays and blog posts have appeared in thememoirnetwork.com, thediarybank.com, shewrites.com, whirlwindreview.com and other publications.
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