What woman doesn’t harbor the desire to write her memoirs? Hit the mid-century mark and you’ve logged enough comedy and tragedy to fill at least one volume. Yet staring down an empty page can be daunting. And how could you possibly remember and capture it accurately? That’s why we tapped Patricia Lewis, who’s been leading creative writing workshops in Western Massachusetts and exotic locales around the globe since 1992 for her best pro tips for writing a memoir.
Her top tips:
- Identify your arc. Choose a significant period, such as your sexual awakening or the hardship you overcame. “A memoir is about the significance of a central experience, rather than your whole life story,” Lewis says, noting that impact trumps information. “We read memoir for story, not facts. What happened, yes — but why did it matter?”
- Trust your own truth. As an exercise, Lewis urges memoirists to jot down a “simple” one-sentence memory. Then make two lists: the first with five details you do remember (how old you were, what you wore, etc.) and the second with five details you don’t (how you got there, maybe, or what the weather was). Now, pen a piece informed by both lists, making up what you forgot. “Often you’ll remember as you write, but what’s more important is how it feels,” Lewis says. “Memoir is about emotional truth. If it feels true, it is.”
- Be prepared! “Unless we skip the hard parts, writing about our lives is inevitably wrenching,” says Lewis, who “could barely breathe for weeping” when she began to write about the suicide of her son. “Often memories emerge that have for good reason been pushed into darkness. But I believe with Buddhists that, ‘The best way out is always through.’”
– Nina Malkin