Lisa Dale Norton is an author and memoir editor. She works on manuscripts with writing clients and teaches at conferences nationwide.

Stay at Home — and Write Your Memoir #2

May 1, 2020
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Stay At Home—And Write Your Memoir #2

 

Last month I wrote here about using your stay-at-home time to work on a memoir and suggested the basics for getting started. This month I’m offering the next step: figuring out what to do with all those memories you’ve been stockpiling in preparation for writing, or with all the stories you’ve already written. What should you do with them? Do you plot your memoir as a novelist might do and somehow fit these in, or is there some other way to use this material?

My belief is that writing memoir in the early stages, is best done without any structure hanging over your head. Why? Because the heart of your memoir—what it’s really about—is best found by working freely to remember and record, to suss out the emotional hot spots in memory and to get the details down.

Still, I know most writers want to get a handle on the shape of their story sooner, rather than later. So, I offer a tool to give you a sense of control, and yet still stave off the official plotting of your memoir for a while longer, at least until you’ve had ample time to explore your memories and learn what is at the base of them driving you to write.

So, do this: Create a series of folders (hard copy or digital) and store the memories you’ve been saving—with catchy titles to remember them—or the stories you’ve already written in these folders. Label the folders with general topics. Do a lot of your memories revolve around your mother or your son? Label one folder: Mom, and another with your son’s name. Or perhaps you’ve been remembering and writing about a place you used to live, or somewhere you’ve traveled: Aunt Louise’s house; The Beach; Indonesia. Group all those stories in a folder with that name. And don’t worry about how the memories or the stories connect. Just divide them up and file them.

This simple act of organization will give you a feeling of mastery over what can become an unruly process; it will impose gentle structure on your remembering and random writing. And just by doing it, you’ll get glimpses of what’s important to you, of what the central themes and ideas of your life and memory are.

As for the formal idea of coming out of the gate with a plot for your memoir, before you even begin to mine your memories, chances are if you feel compelled to do this, you will shortly end up stuck. And why is that? Because crafting a plot implies you know what the protagonist (you) wants to achieve in your story, what you, the narrator, are trying to show, and usually when you first begin writing, you don’t have a clue. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just the reality of writing memoir.

Once you get a handle on what you are writing about, you can start shaping the story. But until you have gotten past the first burst of memory and emotion and begun to understand the larger forces behind your memories, you are better off just puttering along: recalling, writing, filing.

This kind of easy-going approach might end up inviting thoughts of putting together a collage memoir—a bunch of separate stories about Mom, or your son, or The Beach. That could work.

Or the process might simply give you a way to feel less like you are swimming around in an ill-defined soup of memory all the time, with no direction.

Whatever the case may be, I’m an advocate of holding off on plotting your memoir until you have assembled the pivotal memories and rooted around in them a bit to see what might be hiding there. They hold guidance about what shape your story must take.

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This post was written by Lisa Dale Norton

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