A memoir and an autobiography are two different animals. The autobiography is everything you can think about your life from birth to now and it usually is written in chronological order. It can be overwhelming. A memoir covers only a part of your life and it usually is focused. You can base it on a theme or write about a specific period in your life. Catherine Gildiner does this with her memoir, Too Close to the Falls, which covers her life from age 4 to 13, although there is a theme of sorts – she grew up an only child of elderly parents in the 1950s and 1960s (but except for the use of humour, after that her memoir and mine differ). Catherine grew up in Lewistown, NY; her father was a pharmacist and Catherine “helped” deliver prescriptions with Roy, her dad’s employee, from the age of 4. I particularly loved the chapter about the first TV Catherine’s family had – the humour and Catherine’s imagination are priceless. Televisions back then (in the gray ages) were nothing like the digital/technical TVs today.
Another way to get around the autobiography/memoir situation is to write more than one book – the first can cover a certain period in your life, and the next book carries on from there. I’m doing that with my memoir, You Can Go Home. Part 1, Deconstruct, deals with the “growing-up” years when the significant events occurred – to age 22 (when my Mom died and I got married). Part 2, Reconstruct, covers the aftermath – the main “adult” parts influenced (in a good or bad way) by childhood experiences and how I had to basically grow up and learn to stand on my own two feet.
Catherine Gildiner has a sequel memoir out called After the Falls, which deals with her teenage years.
So, if you are writing a memoir, you need to think about themes and what parts of your life go with it. Were your parents alcoholics and you had to grow up with that? Did your parents abandon you and/or did you bounce around from foster care to foster care? Do you have to live with a disability? Did you overcome an addiction? Patrick Lane wrote There is a Season – a Memoir, which showed how his garden helped him overcome his alcoholism and also deal with has past relationship with his father.
Was there something oddball about your family, i.e. something dysfunctional and/or eccentric? Read Jeannette Walls The Glass Castle for a good example of this. Or are you writing something in the family history vein?
Which brings me to what to put in your memoir and what to leave out. You may find an overabundance of material, so you will have to weed it all down. Once you narrow down your theme, it might be a good idea to create an outline of what could fit. And as mentioned in a previous post, if you don’t have enough information about something specific in your life or need more information about people and events you probably didn’t know about as a kid, talk to your relatives, especially the older ones, and the family genealogist.
If you need memory triggers, try to picture the house you grew up in or if you have a photo, look at it. Editor and writing workshop instructor, Brian Henry, has his students draw diagrams of the house you grew up in and then write a story about something that happened in that house and how it affected you. In one of his workshops, I wrote about the reception (location: the house I grew up in) after my Dad’s death and have since rewritten it and incorporated it into the chapter on my Dad’s death. This may sound awful, but it shows your memory is selective in what it remembers, but I can’t recall anything about my dad’s funeral. I remember being at the funeral parlour, even going with Mom to pick out our black dresses for the funeral. But I remember the reception – and some of it was triggered by a photo a cousin took of my Mom, her sister and her sister’s husband leaning over the kitchen table with empty beer bottles in front of them – long after everyone else left. Now that is a photo that tells me something.
It is also a good idea to read memoirs – a writer’s rule of thumb – read what you want to write about. This will not only give you an idea of how it is done but also what is out there that you don’t want to copy. If you want your memoir published you don’t want to be a copy-cat. So, check the weekly best-sellers’ list and Google “Memoirs,” “Amazon.com” and go from there.