19 Tips on Writing Memoir from The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith
I have read The Memoir Project three times. I have taken notes and underlined my favorite sections. Marion Roach Smith has solid advice on how to write your own stories. Let me share nineteen tips on writing memoir from The Memoir Project.
Nineteen tips on writing memoir from The Memoir Project, taken from the nineteen post it notes I put in the book.
1. A memoir is not an autobiography. An autobiography is a book-length depiction of one’s entire life. A memoir depicts a specific aspect of that life.
2. Pay attention to detail. I want to know all about the smell of bacon frying, and how the bullet hole was put in the kitchen tile.
3. Use your own voice. Don’t pretend to be someone you are not.
4. Make connections between your ideas clear. We can’t read your mind, so tell your story with enough detail that we understand what you are trying to say. I once wrote a story about my daughter, and my fellow classmates in my creative writing class thought I had a handicapped child because I carried her everywhere. She wasn’t handicapped.
5. Your memoir is not about you. The stories theme is the main attraction. The story is about something, and you become that story’s illustration.
6. Tell the truth. Don’t lie. Don’t be like James Frey in A Million Little Pieces and say you got shot in the face, when you clearly didn’t.
7. What is your memoir about? How it happened is not as important as why it happened and how it make you feel. I don’t really care what happened to you. I want to find a universal truth in your story and how I can learn from it. What did you learn about life when you boiled coyote skulls on the kitchen stove?
8. Memoir is not writing all of your stories all at once. You might have twelve memoirs inside of you. One about hunting with your father, one about living in Japan, and one about what it is like to have seven litter boxes.
9. Write one scene at a time. Put each scene on an index card. On the front of the card write the theme, and on the back of the index card write down little details–dialogue, smells you remember. You can put the index cards in chronological order on a bulletin board.
Write an essay and you tackle a scene. Master a scene and you can write seventy-five of them and have yourself a book.
— Marion Roach Smith, The Memoir Project
10. Check your facts. Who was the Prime Minister of Tokyo when you moved there in 1983? Don’t guess, be accurate. What year Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minster of Canada is relevant when you named your pet skunk Pierre.
11. “Show don’t tell.” Don’t tell me your dad was an alcoholic; show me the home-made still in the basement and the empty scotch bottles under the kitchen sink.
12. Give your memoir structure. The best way to find structure is to reduce your memoir idea to one sentence. Then you can be clear about what you are writing. The book is about hunting with your father, so you aren’t going to talk about the yoga class you took in college because it is off topic.
13. Write your first draft. Then re-write, and re-write, and re-write until your theme is clear. Marion’s essay on Spam chop suey was shown to NPR after draft forty-five.
It’s Time To Edit
14. Print out your draft and write in the margin what each paragraph does. Indexing the paragraphs will help you see what paragraphs are redundant and which paragraphs can be deleted or combined.
15. Make the changes and print the piece out again. Starting at paragraph one, look for every sentence beginning with “I”. Marion suggests you circle every “I” and re-write at least two-thirds of those sentences to begin with action. I personally hate reading all sentences starting with I. (Did you catch what the last sentence started with? I couldn’t resist.)
16. Make those changes and then print it out again. Now circle every noun and adjective and see if you can find a word that is more clear.
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
— Mark Twain
17. Now edit. Take out unnecessary words. Strive for short simple sentences.
18. Keep a consistent voice. Edit for tone as well as for space.
The most basic rule of editing is that if you can’t bear to read it, no one else can either. So when you find yourself skimming, commit murder.
— Marion Roach Smith, The Memoir Project
Marion’s Single Best Tip on Writing Long Form Memoir
19. Write five pages a day, five days a week, no exceptions. Start today and in three months you will have a first draft.
After I clean the seven litter boxes, I will start to write my five pages. What interests you? Boiling coyote skulls on the kitchen stove in my mother’s good pots? A one-way ticket to Bangkok and living in Tokyo for seven years, or hitchhiking through Israel and working on a Kibbutz?
Marion graciously allowed me to quote from her book and share her wisdom. The Memoir Project is full of examples and more detail about each of the tips. Her book will help you write the stories of your life.
Pamela’s Single Best Tip on Writing Memoir
Live. Get out of your chair and live so that you have something to write about.
Have you ever tried to write memoir? Let me know in the comments section.
Write one scene from your life. Choose something that happened to you that is interesting to you and decide what theme it illustrates. Is your story about feeling content, as illustrated by having ten cats? Write for fifteen minutes. And then share your story in the comments.
I would love to read your stories. Please be kind and comment on someone else’s story.
About Pamela Hodges
Pamela Hodges is a writer and an artist who lives in Pennsylvania with one husband, two children, three cats, two dogs, and seven litter boxes. If you would like to read more of Pamela's writing, check out her blog, where she writes about art, creativity, and reflections on life with cat barf. She would love to meet you at ipaintiwrite.com.