While I was writing my first memoir, I remember Googling phrases like how to write a memoir, how to write an emotional story, and how to write an impacting book. I had no idea what I was doing, but being an avid reader, I knew what I wanted to do:
I wanted to write in a way that impacted my reader.
I wanted to make sure that I achieved the kind of story that left a lasting impression.
Finding the answers to my puzzled questions proved difficult. I couldn’t find much on writing a memoir, let alone writing an emotionally impacting memoir. In the end, I had to find out for myself the answers to my questions.
It’s my hope that this post can offer the kind of useful and practical tips that I wished someone could have told me way back when!
So, without further ado, let’s get started!
Determine your why
First things first, you need to determine your why. Why are you writing your story?
Are you writing about the death of a loved one? Why? To heal? To find answers? To share what you learned through it? What is the reader going to take away from your account?
Discovering the answers to these questions is a process, I think, and you may not find them until you’ve reached the end of your tale. That’s okay. But it’s important that you know why you’re writing your story and what you want to achieve with it.
As hard as it is to swallow, our life-changing moments may not seem that big of a deal to other people. From what I’ve learned, there has to be a redeeming element, such as:
- incredible writing
- a lesson learned
- the quality of forgiveness
- the process of overcoming something, etc.
Don’t write just to say “this thing happened to me and it was awful/amazing/horrible/incredible.” Your reader will go, “yeah, and?” Dig deep within yourself and find the triumph, find the lesson learned, so that your reader can walk away feeling enriched by the experience of reading your story.
Let’s look at The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, for instance. Semi-autobiographical, this memoir relates the traumatic experiences that Lomax underwent as a Japanese POW working the Burma-Siam railway. Lomax was tortured by his Japanese captors, and though he survived, suffered from PTSD for the fifty years following WWII. While this is a tragic and remarkable story in itself, what makes it absolutely unforgettable is the redemptive conclusion given at the end of the book: this man not only finds it within himself to forgive one of the men that had participated in his torture, but ends up becoming friends with him. How amazing is that?!
This is the quality that you need to find in your story. The one that makes the reader say, “Wow, this really inspired me” or, “this so perfectly describes the grieving process – I related so much!”
What do you think the reader is going to take away from your story?
Answering this question is the first step towards writing an emotionally impacting memoir.
Read other people’s memoirs
Reading is so important when it comes to writing – and this applies to all writing, not just memoir. How else will you know what’s good or what works or what impacts you and gets inside you and imprints itself on your heart?
In answering these questions you are developing your taste. You are fine-tuning your palette. Read everything you can get your hands on, but when you study memoir, try and figure out what it is that gets to you.
Why did such-and-such a book make you cry? What was it exactly? How did the writer set the tone of the book? How did it make you feel?
When you find yourself impacted by a particular writer, go back and read their writing over and over again until you determine what it is that impressed you so deeply.
Was it the evocative imagery? The unforgettable story? The particular writing style? You can learn from both the good and the bad. Where did such-and-such a writer go wrong? Why didn’t the recounting of their tragic story leave you in tears?
Going back to The Railway Man for an example, I can say that while the story is incredible and while I felt deeply for the writer, I didn’t cry and I didn’t feel particularly invested in the story. This was, I believe, mostly due to the fact that Lomax’s writing gives off a kind of distant air – it’s completely understandable, don’t get me wrong, considering what he experienced. But it doesn’t make for a very emotionally invest-able story. Dialogue is at the absolute minimum. He tells the story from beginning to end without showing us very much of what happened. Which leads me to my next point.
Showing and telling
When it comes to memoir, I have a theory.
My theory is that the writer must be a very masterful storyteller. One must learn how to bring their reader to the very edge of an emotional precipice and display the churning waters of anguish below without shoving the reader off the cliff into it’s depths. To do that would be to lose the reader forever; how will you draw them back into the story if they have drowned in the pathos of your memories? It takes skill and a good deal of thought to learn how to visit those churning waters while always giving the reader ample oxygen to breathe.
To do this, I believe, is by alternately employing the methods of showing and telling in your writing.
My interpretation of showing is this: “Showing” is when you paint a picture in the reader’s mind. You don’t just say, “We had some bad times and I wasn’t handling them well.” You show, when you say, “After the baby died, I stopped eating. My stomach knotted whenever I tried to put food in my mouth. Haunting memories of his last moments tormented me in a slide of gruesome images.”
Do you see the difference? It elicits an emotional response in the reader. It paints a picture in their mind. It leaves an imprint, and helps them better relate with the character.
In memoir, both showing and telling have their place. It boils down to the writer and their own particular style, of course, and some writers do very well with only telling their story. Their writing is so clever that they can get away with it. Others manage showing very well. Personally, I think the best writers are those who can masterfully blend both.
For me, the stories leave the greatest imprint on my heart are those that cleverly employ the method of showing. Show me what it was like the night that your life fell apart. I want to hear the cicadas singing outside your bedroom window and feel the chill of the night breeze on my skin before the pounding of your heart sets the hairs on the back of my neck on end. Do you see? It is not enough to say “I was lying in bed when my mother came into the room and gave me the worst news of my life.” Bring the moments to life. Paint a picture inside my head so that I’m there with you, experiencing every shift of fate as if it were playing on a television screen in my mind.
Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Trial and error
At the end of the day, it all boils down to this:
Write badly. Write until you learn to write better, and then keeping writing. Don’t stop. Don’t let your inadequacy hold you back. You may never feel fully satisfied with your writing, but I promise you, if you keep at it, you will come to a place where you find your rhythm. You’ll figure out what works.
It’s in the wrestling, in the endless rewrites, in the exhaustive edits, in the constant revising, that you find your style.
I wrote several drafts of my book. Like Eric Lomax of The Railway Man, I often resorted to telling my story rather than showing it. Showing is, admittedly, more arduous to the writer, especially when it comes to relating painful memories. It requires reliving the experience in a very profound way. It is easier to say, “My father died and I was devastated,” than it is to dig deep into your memories and reawaken those painful moments that encompassed that tragedy.
Learning how to write is a part of telling your story. You want to do it justice: I know I did. To write badly would be an unjust tribute to my experiences. So I learned how to write… how good of a writer I am now is something I don’t think I can determine but I know I’m better than when I started, and maybe that’s the only measure a writer can allow herself.
Here are some bits of advice, as well as suggestions that will help you in your quest:
- It helps to work in other genres, to experiment and see what works.
- Try writing a short story or work on a fictional novel. Wattpad is a great online tool for this.
- Share your stories and get feedback. See what other people think. Ask for their constructive criticism.
- Be patient with yourself.
- Don’t write to write a bestseller: write to tell your story as best as you know how.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Learn from your mistakes.
You can do this!
Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.
If this post helped you at all, please let me know in the comments below! And, if you’re on a quest to write your own memoir, let me know how it’s going for you. 🙂