Before you sit down to write your memoir, it’s a good idea to do a little planning and make some basic decisions about the form your memoir will take. Last week, I talked about three such decisions: what time period you want to cover, what unique angle you can offer, and how much of your memoir will be about yourself versus how much will be about a certain era, culture, or place.
Here are three more questions to get you started off on the right foot:
4. What are the main storylines you want to cover?
Like a good novel, a good memoir tells a story. A memoir should be more than just a string of events; it needs forward motion, conflict, and resolution. Storylines that are introduced need to be resolved; loose threads need to be tied up. Introducing a new character or theme is therefore more dangerous than you think: readers will want to know what happened to Cousin Ed after he joined the navy, or how you resolved your longstanding inner conflict over your parents’ religious views.
Before you start writing your memoir, try thinking about it as if it were a novel. What’s the plot? What are the subplots? Which themes will you grapple with? If you had to tell the story of your life in one sentence, what would it be? As you write your memoir, knowing the answers to these questions will make it easier for you to recognize when you’re veering too far off track.
5. Who are the main characters?
Everybody has at least one relationship that has shaped the course of their lives, whether it’s with a relative, friend, teacher, co-worker, lover, enemy, or even a stranger. A major relationship is a relationship that has a significant impact on your worldview, your self-definition, or your way of life. Some memoirs focus almost exclusively on a significant relationship (say, the relationship between an author and her schizophrenic mother, or the relationship between a lawyer and client).
When you’re writing your memoir, it’s almost always better to focus on these “big” relationships than to try to write about everyone you’ve ever known. “Big” relationships have inherent appeal because when you write about them, you can’t help but tell a story or wrestle with a theme. Just as you should be selective about which storylines are worth pursuing, aim to write about the real main characters in your life. Readers won’t miss the minor characters you leave out.
6. What are your themes?
I’ve mentioned the word “theme” a couple times in this post. A theme is a central idea or thread that runs through a story, for example, “brotherhood” or “faith” or “displacement.” The theme of your memoir should be a question or idea that you care about deeply or something that has been a constant force throughout your life.
Unlike choosing your plot and characters (which should be pretty easy to identify), discovering the theme or themes of your memoir can be a slow process. You might not even realize what they are until the second or third draft.
Knowing your themes can help you give your memoir a more unified feel. A theme can also be a useful starting point for your portrayal of a certain event or character. Once you identify your themes, you might find them popping up again and again whenever you think about your life story. This is a good sign that you’ve chosen the right ones.
Even though one is fact and the other fiction, memoirs and novels have a lot in common. When you think about your memoir like a novel, you can make better decisions about how to write it and maybe even discover some literary currents you didn’t know were there.