Linda Thornburg: Write the First Draft of a Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part Four


Linda Thornburg runs the Memories Into Story website. This is the last part of a four-part series on writing the first draft of your memoir.

Roman numeral 5000 I reversed CC

Roman numeral 5000 I reversed CC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day Four: Writing an Outline

Don’t panic. This isn’t the Roman numeral one followed by capital A type of outline that you were forced to use in elementary school. This is an outline that will make use of your unconscious and subconscious as much as your conscious faculties. You’ve seen how branching works and if you’ve done the work of the first three days, you have some idea of a theme by now. The purpose of the outline is to give you a plan for moving forward.

It’s time to think about how you want to structure your material. First, write at the top of a page the general theme you think you may be working with. Under that write a few “subtopics,” leaving space between the entries. For example, in my case the theme was “Living in an Age of Transitional Femininism.” While that might not be the optimal way to phrase it, I mean that my idea of what a woman is supposed to be and do is vastly different than that of my mother and that has helped to define my life’s journey and the roads that I chose. My subtopics are the relationship that I have had with my mother, the quest for my own individuality, why I was lucky to have lived in the place and time that I did, birth order and siblings, men I knew in my twenties and thirties, men I knew in my forties, men I knew in my fifties, and finding empowerment. Under each of these subtopics I listed items that came to me, in no particular order. That gave me an idea of how to make a more formal outline, a process we will cover shortly.

Do this simple exercise and let the subtopics you have listed sit in your head for a day. Tomorrow you will refine and add to the list.

Day Five: Reviewing Your Outline

If you are like I am, you will quickly see that you have too much material to cover in one memoir, which is why refining your theme is so important. Your challenge will be to pick those incidents from your life that illustrate your theme the best, give up the most evocative picture of your experiences and evoke the most empathy in your readers. Some people can launch into their stories at this point, as I did. Others will need to outline more consciously and have a stronger sense of  theme and the direction  before they launch in.

I wrote what was basically a recitation of my life at this point. In about two weeks I was able to cover my whole life. The themes I might choose from in my next draft became apparent as I wrote. They included wanting to break the boundaries that my parents’ lives and attitudes seemed to have set for me and trying to think outside the box. I am now ready to take this raw material and produce short stories that will be woven into a longer narrative. I will have to fictionalize the names and characters because otherwise I might get sued. But my direction is clear. As I choose those elements of my life that illustrate the themes I am working with, I will know what to put in and what to leave out.

I think you will find an enormous satisfaction in simply reciting the facts of your life. While this would have seemed an overwhelming task before the earlier work  I did, it was not painful or laborious because I had prepared for it by facing my fears, exploring and refining possible themes and writing an informal outline. I shared my work with a writing group, so I knew who I was writing this first draft for, three other people who I felt safe sharing my life with. This gave me the momentum to finish because I had readers, and eliminated the fear of exposure, because they were people I trusted. One woman in the group told me it was the best thing I had done for the group.

If you don’t feel you are quite ready for the recitation of the facts of your life yet, keep working at the outline over the next couple of days. Sometimes just letting your unconscious work on it for a little while will be enough. Happy writing!

Linda Thornburg: Write The First Draft of a Great Memoir in Thirty Days, Part Two

Linda Thornbug runs the Memories Into Story website. See her bio under Writing and Editing Services.

"Writing on the wood is prohibited."...

“Writing on the wood is prohibited.” DSC07600 (Photo credit: Nicolas Karim)

If you have discovered that your primary motivation in writing your memoir is to right a wrong, you need to dig deeper. Writing about the past may change it in your mind, but it won’t change circumstances and it generally won’t help you to gain revenge. There is nothing wrong with writing as a form of therapy, but the writing ought to be directed toward expressing and learning from your experiences, not toward feeling vindicated by exposing the actions of others. If that is your primary motivation, you are, quite frankly, stuck, and you need to find a way to get unstuck. The need to right a wrong is a victim mentality that will result in a poorer memoir.

Have you known people who keep making the same mistakes in life again and again? Who see the world through a lens so colored with their own sense of victimization that no matter what happens in their life they see it as bad news? They actually attract misfortune by the way they think. If you are one of these people, it’s unlikely you can break this cycle by yourself, because it is so powerfully reinforcing. Writing can help, but only if you approach it with the attitude that you will gather new insights about yourself as you write, and learn from the experience of writing, as well as from the experiences your life has presented to you. The lessons are there for you; think of them as rich material for your memoir, accept responsibility for your life and use your life experiences to create a memoir of hope.

I used the plan described in these blogs to write the first draft of my own memoir, A Different Drum, in exactly a month. I hope it will serve you equally well. If you follow the plan you will complete a manuscript in a month and be ready for the revision process. Revisions are the most important part of any writing project and they take time. But by having a completed manuscript, you will find you have the interest and energy to revise.

Happy writing!

Day One: Finding Out What You’re Afraid Of

Your first assignment is to confront your writing fears. Anything that is frightening can be made manageable by articulating and understanding it. And you do have fears about writing — because everyone does. So let’s review some common fears of memoir writers and figure out how to conquer them, or at least to tame them.

Fear number one: My life is too ordinary to be interesting.

You are unique and that makes you interesting. But if you believe your life is ordinary, dig deeper. List your accomplishments. You will be amazed by everything you have accomplished and you probably only remember a fraction of it.

This doesn’t have to be a complete or exhaustive list. Its purpose is to remind you of what you think are your greatest accomplishments. But notice something that happens in the process. The trajectory of your life begins to emerge, and that will bring you closer to discovering a theme for your memoir. In my life, writing has been important. So has accomplishment.

If you are having trouble with this exercise, ask yourself the following questions:

What am I most proud of?

What are the obstacles I had to overcome to achieve these things?

If you are fortunate enough to have so many accomplishments that you couldn’t possibly list them all, summarize the most important. You may want to use this list later to help you discover a memoir theme.

Fear number two: I’m not a good enough writer.

You are the expert on your story, which gives you an enormous advantage over others who might want to write it. To gain confidence in your writing ability, some short exercises may be in order. Here are some ways to boost your confidence:

·Write a letter to the editor on a topic you are passionate about. Edit it carefully. Send it and see if the paper will publish it.

·Write a story about something that happened in your life. Read it to your children, grandchildren or a friend. What kind of questions does your audience have?

·Write one paragraph describing a scene of your choice. Write it over and over until you are completely satisfied. Then read it to someone to see how that person reacts.

The truth is no one is a good enough writer. Writing is an activity that requires revision after revision. The secret to being a good writer is writing – and then revising. As a professor I had in graduate school said, there is nothing magical about the process. You may start with certain strengths, as I did, but you will quickly find that your weaknesses outweigh your strengths, no matter who you are. I think one of the reasons I love the activity of writing is that it is continually challenging. You can get better, but only if you continue to write.

Fear number three: It will be painful to review certain aspects of my life.

Writing is a solitary activity. Generally there is no one there but you and the computer or that blank piece of paper. You are in control of the process. If you are afraid of facing pain, do it a little at a time. Take one aspect of your life that you know you are comfortable dealing with and write a paragraph about it. Then write another paragraph that goes a little further into the painful area. For example, someone who suffered the death of a husband or wife might write a paragraph remembering a special holiday during the marriage and then write about what it was like to face that holiday alone. You will discover that when you are able to write about the painful periods, it feels good to get your memories and feelings down on paper. Writing about pain is therapeutic. In the process of writing, you find a release that would not have been possible otherwise. Try this exercise a few times and you will no longer have trouble writing about the painful periods of your life.

Fear number four: I don’t have anything original to say.

This is a variation of the fear “My life is too ordinary.” Worrying about not being original when you are writing about your own life is silly. Your experiences are unique; therefore telling about them will produce a unique manuscript. Your fear may be based in the fear of going deeply enough into your life experiences to find the interesting parts.

Fear number five: It will take too long and be too much work.

One of the reasons I wrote this blog is to show you that you don’t have to spend years writing a memoir. This fear is a sort of cost/benefit analysis statement that actually gives you a false estimate of the cost and benefit. By putting in a little bit of time, I promise you that you will reap a satisfying harvest. You may find that the habit of writing serves you well for the rest of your life.

Fear number six: The genre is already crowded. What if everyone wrote memoirs? The world would be flooded with bad literature.

If you are afraid of adding bad material to an overcrowded genre, you want to stand out. You want your memoir to be better than average and you want to develop a wide reading public. It’s good to know this at the beginning. You will have to work harder and do more revisions than those who are writing only for family and friends. The genre has been called overcrowded by some critics, but publishers have seen an appetite for memoirs. This presents an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Fear number seven: I’m afraid people will see how imperfect I am.

Aren’t we all? If perfection is your goal, you’re probably living on the wrong planet. Think of the people you know. Are those you consider the most perfect also the most interesting? I doubt it. Our defects and blemishes make us human and they are what people are interested in. Or, I should say, they are interested in seeing how we overcome or surmount our imperfections. So in some sense, the less perfect you have been, the better your story can be, if you can show us how you dealt positively with  your imperfections.

Fear number eight: I’m afraid I’ll hurt people.

This is the most legitimate fear out of all those listed. One of the most difficult things about writing a memoir is telling an honest story without doing harm to others. There are a number of different ways that you might proceed. You could fictionalize parts of your story by creating composite characters that represent two or more of the people in your life. You could show your manuscript to the person or persons who you fear might be hurt and get their permission to use the material. You could change names and write under a pseudonym so that no one knows who the people in your story are. You could find metaphorical substitutes for certain incidents. For example, if you had a sibling with a disease and you were afraid of announcing or publicizing it to people outside your family even though that affected how you grew up, you could invent an uncle who lived with you who had the disease or one that was similar. There is no one right way to avoid hurting others. Each situation has to be evaluated on how truthful you feel that you must be at that point in the story and how important the information is.

Fear number nine: I’m afraid the people that I write about will try to punish or sue me.

Use the techniques discussed in fear number eight to work around this. Also, familiarize yourself with the slander and libel laws. The website is a good resource.

Fear number ten: I’m afraid of losing my privacy.

Then you obviously want to write a book that will be read by a wider audience than just your family. Consider writing under a pseudonym.

What fears do you have that I have not mentioned? By articulating your fears and finding strategies to quiet them, you will be able to write more productively.