In contrast to fiction, memoir is intended to relate a true story, but in terms of technique memoir shares a great deal with the fictional short story.
Just as if you were writing fiction you should use the following:
Point of View (POV)
And human connection.
It is also fair to say that the essayist can, and should, use all of these techniques too.
Let’s look at how some of these techniques play out in memoir.
Image and Voice:
When writing an academic essay you generally strive for an authoritative, abstract, and impersonal voice:
Howard Dilettante was born of humble parentage…
The opening German offensive of the war was launched early on September 20th 1939…
But memoir calls for a stance; an attitude; a persona…
The park is hardly a block away, where lighted ball diamonds come into view on ducking through branches. There too is a fenced acre for unleashed dogs, a half-dozen tennis courts with yellow balls flying and, close by, a game of summertime hoops under the lights, a scrambling, squeaking, stampede of sweat and bodies on green tarmac…
“Hoop Sex,” Theodore Weesner.
Notice how Weesner’s reveals the persona as he builds towards the basketball game (that he refers to as ‘hoops.’). Imagine if the same scene was related by a dog-owner or a tennis fan.
Just like a story, memoir needs scenes. If you are working from a remembered period of your life, it may present itself first as summary, but when you get to what really matters you will shift into scene with the concrete details of action, discovery, and decision.
Just down from the mountains, early August. Lugging my youngest child from the car, I noticed that his perfectly relaxed body was getting heavier every year. When I undressed his slack limbs, he woke up enough to mumble, “I like my own bed,” then fell back down, all the way down, into sleep. The sensation of his weight was still in my arms as I shut the door.
“Images,” Robert Haas.
Notice how Haas begins in summary then moves into the sense impressions of the action.
Memoir relies on character. In an academic essay character might be explained, although even in a formal essay explanation is not the best approach. Instead we follow one of the central tenets of all creative writing which is Show Don’t Tell. In other words character should be portrayed through the dialogue, actions, and details of the players in the story.
For memoir the problem here is immediately evident as soon as we begin to write. We might be able to remember what someone wore on the specific occasion, and even what they did, but there’s no way we can remember exactly what we––or they––said on a particular day.
We need to write remembering as truly as we can, and then perhaps test in our minds whether the other person would agree with the reconstruction of the dialogue.
In a personal essay where integrity to the exact events is critical then you might lead into the reconstructed dialogue with a signal phrase such as:
What we said was like this…
Our conversation went something like this…
I think that for a memoir where there’s a lot of dialogue you might only need to use a signal phrase once, even if at all. I think you can rely on the reader expecting that you’re just presenting a reconstruction from you memory.
Right now I’m working on a memoir of the days when I played saxophone in a rock band.
These are my notes for one of the scenes.
A girl I’d never seen before appeared at band practice.
The idea was that she was going to be the vocalist instead of me––which was fine by me, as I hated singing, not to mention that I really didn’t have the personality to front the band. The girl also played the flute, and there was a famous rock band at the time with a flute player called Jethro Tull.
It was a cold day and the floor was a tangle of winter coats, cables, and instrument cases. The girl played a few bars on her flute then put it on the floor to start singing.
This is how I turned it into a scene:
Mandy placed her flute on the floor of the cramped garage, and picked her way across to the mic, trying not to trip over all our crap. “What are we going to play?”
“Johnny B. Goode,” I said.
“I don’t know it,” she said. “What are the words?”
“It’s a rock-n-roll standard,” I said. “Everyone knows it.” I strummed a few chords on the guitar, and launched into the opening lines with all the confidence of someone who isn’t actually a guitarist and can’t really sing.
She waved her arms about. I thought for a moment she was dancing and getting into it, then she yelled, “Stop! For Chrissakes, Stop!”
“Nobody wants to listen to that rubbish! You want to play Motown stuff like James Brown!”
I noodled a timid guitar solo, and glanced from Rick to Neil to Charlie, but everyone was looking in different directions.
“Where’s my flute,” said Mandy. She bent down, shifted a ski-jacket to one side, and stood back up with her instrument. It was flattened and bent. “No!” she cried. “Who trod on it!?” Her expression twisted. I went from wanting to chase her out of the garage to wanting to hug her, then she whirled on me, and shook the flute as if it was a weapon. “It was you, wasn’t it. You stamped on it because you don’t want me in the band!”
“No!” I said.
She pointed at the floor. “It had to be you. Look at where you’re standing, and look at your stupid boots.”
I was wearing stupid boots. It could have been me. In any case I hadn’t meant to do it, and anyway, it could have been any of us––even Mandy herself, but being who I am I’ve always believed it actually was me.
Write about the time you lost a friendship, either a long standing friendship or a potential one.
You can lead into the scene with a summary of the events that led up to the pivotal moment, but then transition into action and dialogue, using your memory as best you can.
End the scene with how you ended up feeling, which is in fact the whole point of creative narrative.
Someone once said: Don’t write the events; write the emotions.
Although you still need summary, and events as a context for the emotions.
As in the above excerpt, setting can be key to the whole point of the story. Without the disorganized garage the events might have taken a whole different turn.
The good thing about settings is that they’re easier to remember, and sometimes you could even go back and visit the exact spot where it all happened.
Just as in a movie you can begin with a long shot and then gradually move in closer to the subject.
It’s just past eleven on a Friday night in the Spring of 1955. Here comes a kid down the length of Eighteenth Street in the Midwood section of Flatbush, in Brooklyn New York. He passes the kept lawns and the tidy hedges under the sycamores and maples. The middle class is asleep, and most of the houses attached to the lawns are dark, though an occasional window pulses with blue-gray television light. Streetlamps shine benignly and and Mars is red in the sky. The kid is on his way home from the weekly meeting of Troop 8, Boy Scouts of America…
“For the Love of a Princess of Mars,” by Frederick Busch.
Unlike a story creative non-fiction needs a balance of dramatization and reflection. This does not mean that the balance is always the same in all essays. A memoir can leave the reader with a vivid image of a moment of an error of judgement, whereas an essay about a walk in the woods may need half the space to list, analyze and elucidate the discoveries that have been made.
Sometimes a personal essay will convey its intensity precisely through the force of its abstractions.
I have had with my friend Wes Jackson a number of useful conversations about the necessity of getting out of movements––even movements that have seemed necessary and dear to us––when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a ‘peace’ movement becomes violent.
‘In Distrust of Movements,’ Wendell Berry.
One part of the purpose of creative non-fiction is always going to be to inform or teach, and this purpose is always variable. I think you need to show an intent. You need to draw the reader towards whatever it was that drew you to writing it in the first place.
In fiction you merely bring the reader to the scene and allow them to experience it. In non-fiction you probably need to direct the reader more directly towards what you want them to observe. It remains a matter of degree, with memoir giving the reader the greatest freedom to wander around within a scene and draw their own conclusions.
Write a memoir piece centered around a building, room or architectural structure you care about.
Choose a building that still exists, and ideally one that you could revisit.
Place yourself and other characters into a scene using the building––or part of it––as a backdrop to the dialogue and actions of real events you can remember.
Reconstruct the scene(s) as faithfully as you can.
The second step of this exercise would be to revisit the building.
You can’t revisit the scene, but you can revisit the setting.
Does revisiting the setting help with remembering the events that took place there.
How accurately can you remember the building itself. Does it now seem smaller? Or different in some other way?
You could perhaps even contact one of the other people who witnessed the events you’re writing about.