Tips on Writing a Memoir

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Keeping a journal is one way to gather material before you begin to tell your life story, and will be a rich source of details as you look back on it.
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Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann present the unique elements of crafting a memoir, from story arc and point of view to the details of preparing for publication, in "Your Life is a Book." With these tips on writing a memoir, you can skillfully tell your life story, whether your goal is to publish or to leave a legacy.

Preparing to tell your life story is less complicated than you think, with expert help from Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann in Your Life is a Book(Sasquatch Books, 2014). Peterson is the author of eighteen books, including two memoirs, and Freymann a top literary agent with years of experience working with memoirs; both offer tips on writing a memoir thoughtfully and skillfully, with exercises to help jump start your writing, examples of well-executed passages and advice on publishing your work. The following excerpt is from chapter 4, “Field Notes on Your Life.”

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. —Muriel Rukeyser

Keeping a Journal as a Record

Is keeping a journal, a blog, a photo album, or a scrapbook of letters and ideas a good thing? Absolutely! Journaling can be an essential element of your daily writing practice, because it flexes the writing muscles and, like a good massage, loosens the tense ones. Because it is for your eyes only, you are free to express anything without worrying about your phrasing, your grammar, your punctuation, or how it all sounds. The process can be wonderfully liberating.

No matter if you jot down notes spontaneously during the day or sit down at a specific time, journal writing can open the door to your subconscious and help bring buried memories to the surface. It is also an effective way of consciously working through dilemmas. In addition to journaling, you may want to keep a record of the little observations, phrases, and thoughts you’ve experienced or encountered each day. Think of this journal as raw material the way an artist sketches details for later development. Ideally, if you are organized enough, these notes would be kept in a separate notebook that you keep with you wherever you go, or in a folder on your computer or electronic tablet.

Don’t worry if you are not journaling daily. It isn’t a question of frequency; it’s one of doing it when and as you can, and doing it seriously. There’s no question that there have been times in Sarah Jane’s life when nothing has been as unequivocally helpful. For her, journaling has been a way to look at a painful feeling or an urgent problem, examine it, and then somehow, almost magically, write her way to insight—to a truth that resonates in that moment.

Brenda doesn’t do much journaling, nor has she ever kept a diary, except of her dreams. Perhaps her mother’s years in the CIA, or the fact that in her family three people had top-security clearance from the US government, instilled in Brenda at a very early age that one’s secrets must be hidden or coded. So she kept a rather inscrutable dream journal that no one else could decipher. When she wrote her two memoirs, Brenda turned instead to family photos, letters, Moleskine notebooks, and audio notes that she made with her cell phone recorder app.

These “field notes” to your life are essential to re-create the sensory details and flesh out the epiphanies of any scene. But they are works in progress and not ever ready to be published. Why not? They have not yet been transformed by your conscious craftsmanship into the final creation—your memoir. They are the kneaded clay before the sculpting, glazing, and firing of a beautiful pot. They are life not yet tempered by art.

Tell Your Life Story as a Work of Art

Sometimes these journals and field notes are so stream of consciousness, uncensored, and raw that they are what Brenda calls “unprocessed pain.” They read like a cri de coeur, or “cry from the heart,” not like an artfully crafted memoir. One of the best pieces of writing advice Brenda ever received as a young writer was from her first mentor, Diane Johnson. When one of Brenda’s dear friends committed suicide in 1981, Brenda wrote about it and sent an early draft to Diane to edit. Very gently, but with her characteristic honesty, Diane advised Brenda to write down every specific detail: the bright spring light in the room when Brenda discovered her friend’s body, the freshly folded laundry she was carrying and dropped, the gun gleaming like a dark fist at her friend’s cold temple as Brenda felt for a pulse.

“Write down everything you saw and felt that horrible day,” Diane gently suggested. “Take notes. Write this story over and over, but don’t publish it for several years. Only then will you possess and understand it, beyond the trauma. Only then will you discover the larger meaning of this event in your life so you can give it to others.”

Gratefully heeding Diane’s advice, Brenda wrote down every single thing she could remember at the moment. Then, on the yearly anniversary of her friend’s death, Brenda revised the original story. This became a healing ritual, and every draft was more clear-eyed and complete. It took quite a few years until the memoir piece “The Sacredness of Chores,” published in Nature and Other Mothers, was more than just unprocessed pain, until more than grief framed it. The epiphany of this story was not “surrender to death” but survival. One detail Brenda had scribbled in her notebook about that day was the to-do list she had made before she discovered the suicide. This simple jot in a journal became the theme for the final published story:

1) Finish Chapter 10
2) Laundry
3) Defrost fridge
4) Meet P. N. at farmers’ market (rhubarb?)

At the time of her friend’s death, Brenda could never have imagined that this scrawled note would become the organizing principle for a story, the magnet that drew all the seemingly insane pieces together and gave meaning to this loss. A simple to-do list that, at the time, seemed so busy, so foolish, so small set against suicide, would, upon reflection, become the sacred death chores of cleaning, of surviving, of staying on. This story ends: “As long as the washer and dryer spin, I tell myself, I am safe and those I love may choose to keep living alongside me. There is laundry to be done and so many chores—chores of living. Think of all the chores we have yet to do, quietly and on our knees—because home is holy.”

Whether you’re journaling about loss, death, illness, divorce, or any of the painful events that both detour and yet shape our lives, keeping field notes and journals of the raw, unprocessed pain can become the touchstone for your final well-crafted memoir. Writing a memoir can even help heal trauma. As author Amy Greene writes, “It’s not forgetting that heals. It’s remembering.”

© 2014 by Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Your Life is a Book: How to Craft & Publish YourMemoir by permission of Sasquatch Books.

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