A couple of days ago I began working with a student who is editing a memoir as part of her thesis project. Most of my editorial experience is with fiction, and the student was originally working with a novel, but had to switch due to circumstances out of her control. As I began to outline my expectations for the student, I thought about the primary elements of memoir.
Like fiction, well like any type of writing, there are certain elements utilized in crafting works within a specific genre. In fiction, characterization, plot, structure top the list. In memoir, there is the tricky little issue with telling the truth. Truth is the pinnacle of memoir – obviously, but memoir is not an autobiography, it is based on the writer’s perception, which is sometimes slightly to the left of a true reality. I’m not suggesting memoir is a sloppy version of the truth, after all, writer’s can’t manufacture events or people – no James Frey moments, please! But unlike an autobiography where every detail must be, should be, meticulously researched, memoir leaves room for the writer’s interpretation. For example, when I am writing about Mum, I am sometimes pulling from fuzzy memories. I hadn’t thought my memories were fuzzy until I found a journal I had written while my mother was sick. I remembered the timeline quite differently than it had played out. I would not have been wrong if I had written it as I remembered it, that is, unless I decided to add a fictitious event or person, such as a heart attack (which never happened) to amp up the story. Part of the story is the way we remember the events that shape our lives.
Besides truth, memoir must also rely on plot, structure, character, and description. Wait, doesn’t that sound like fiction? Yes, but because all of these are centered around truth, they must be executed with truth in mind. That being said, the plot has to flow and move forward, and keep the reader engaged. The structure has to work, i.e. is there a hook to grab the reader? Is it told in a linear manner, if not does it work, does the middle flow, and what type of resolution is there? The word character implies “made up,” but in memoir the characters, or people in the book, must still have a character arc. There must be growth or change. Finally, without description, the story the writer is trying to tell will be flat, leaving the reader unable to envision those necessary details that make a story rich.
All of these elements are necessary when writing memoir. Without them, the project would be a hot mess that at a minimum would likely never get published, and at the other end of the spectrum, could get one sued.
When will you begin your memoir?