Got autobiography but want memoir?

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I recently had an opportunity with the National Association of Memoir Writers ( to talk about my memoir, Under the Birch Tree and other points about writing my book. During this hour-long virtual book club, the topic was transforming autobiography to memoir. However, so many points to make in so little time, so thought I’d expand on that discussion here:

Memoir from autobiographical narrative.

Call me a rule breaker; my memoir covers three decades. Contrary to the definition of memoir as only a segment of one’s life or single life event, this thirty-year span narrative allowed me to establish my themes, to develop them, show my growth and change and then finally to a resolution. My search for home, not necessarily physically, but figuratively, carries my story of survival and triumph over adversity. I also relate the nature of birch trees as a metaphor to my own outlook; I am adaptable and can take root and spring up, starting over in unfamiliar spaces. Covering a longer period can be a pitfall for a writer who may find herself teetering toward autobiography and not memoir. Therefore, a writer’s theme(s) should strongly and consistently be woven throughout her story to act like glue to keep it all together.

Relatable experiences.

I wanted my memoir to reflect relatable experiences–parents’ divorce, bad relationships, lack of fulfilling friendships, unfulfilling professions–to engage my reader. No matter what our age, we share experiences and making sense of relatable experiences makes a reader care, which leads me to the next point.

Include only pertinent and crucial scenes/experiences.

I had to have a reason why I was including every scene and experience. This intention shows focus, necessary for memoir development. For example, I write of being in my parents’ bedroom, what I see, and why I’m there. One might ask what does that have to do with anything? I describe a few of my mother’s personal items—lipstick tubes, the color of her nail polish, her comb, to name a few—having their place just so in her vanity. Conversely, my father had only three items—wallet, gold chain bracelet and loose change—atop his bureau. I included this scene to show my attempt to connect covertly with my parents through their personal space. Connecting is thematic in my book.

Write vivid, descriptive scenes with effective dialogue.

A scene written with the use of all the senses immerses a reader in the writer’s world. Tell your reader what you are seeing. Are there any sounds or a scent in the air? Are you touching anything and how does that feel? Effective dialogue reveals, shows human interaction and character personalities. Using descriptive scenes and effective dialogue can help to move the line from autobiography to memoir.

009A memoir has to have purpose.

Unlike autobiographies, memoirs are unique stories–with a purpose. I show the reader how I navigated my life’s disconnections. My own navigation can be an example for a younger reader to build her own road map in finding a place she wants to be. For a middle-aged reader, she may use my story to reflect on her life with her own disconnections and the connections she sought. A memoir’s purpose can answer the question that plagues a memoirist: who is going to care about what I have to say? A reader will care about a memoir that reveals meaning and purpose.

Seek professional critiques.

Over the ten plus years I worked on my manuscript, I struggled not knowing if I had too much autobiography and not enough memoir. Reflections and the “making sense” part eluded me. I realized I needed help, so I turned to a professional critique. Professional critiques are invaluable to a writer for providing an objective assessment, guidance, and structure needed to move a manuscript in the right direction. If a writer is spinning her wheels, has looked at her manuscript as moving laterally, a professional assessment should be a next step. A critique offers a thorough examination of an author’s work, what is working and what it lacks, if the theme is consistent throughout, and if there are sufficient reflections of what was learned. A critique is a guide for a next rewrite to move your manuscript forward.

And on to a developmental edit.

After several critiques over the years, I worked with a developmental editor. This editor knows the right questions to ask to help you with answers that will get you out of a “who cares” situation. A dialogue with your developmental editor is advantageous to both parties–the writer can verbally articulate what her story is about and what themes are important and the editor is able to best respond to pull out key memoir points. My book moved to the memoir I wanted it to be after just one rewrite with my developmental edit. This edit was my final push to finish my book. I got the green light and was tracked with She Writes Press.

A memoir writer makes a deal with herself—if she details her life experiences, the autobiographical part, then she must dig below the surface to find meanings in those experiences to tell her unique story, the memoir part. In her book Old Friend From Far Away, Natalie Goldberg says, “And because life is not linear, you want to approach writing memoir sideways, using the deepest kind of thinking to sort through the layers: you want reflection to discover what the real connections are.”

Making memoir from autobiography is not easy. But with a few writing suggestions and professional help, no doubt your writing will be transformed to memoir.

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