Memoir is non-fiction so it has to be factual and perhaps dull? No, no, no.
True, you have to get information you include such as statistics and dates of birth of family members correct. However, you are telling your story, what you remember. The key word is “story.” In fiction, stories are made-up and creative (or should be). And that creativity (but not the made-up part) can be applied to certain types of non-fiction such as narrative non-fiction and memoir. For narrative non-fiction consult an expert writer in that area, such as Ken McGoogan who has written several award-winning books in that vein and teaches the subject at the University of Toronto. See http://kenmcgoogan.blogspot.ca/p/home_11.html
Your memoir should be your truth but should read like fiction. Here is a brief example from my memoir-in-the-works You Can Go Home: deconstructing the demons (and I want to change that title as well).
One night, late, loud pounding on the front door wakes Mom, Dad and me. Like the servant heeding the master, we all trip out to the front. Mother turns on the veranda light and yanks the door open.
“Do you know this man?” A police officer stands on our veranda. His right hand supports the shoulder of a dishevelled man.
“Uh, home,” the man says.
The stench of his breath assaults my nostrils and I jump back behind my mother, but nudge my head out. The man’s black hair lies flat and oily. Night shadow and red compete for attention on his face. He is bare from his neck to his dark trousers and when I look closer, I see blood streaking down from a deep slice on his left cheek and dribbling onto his chest. His eyes look bloody and vague, at least what I can see of them. A black mass hovers above his left eye.
“Home?” he asks again.
“Sharon, go back to bed,” Dad says. “This is not for little girls.”
But I am both fascinated and repulsed. I lean out a little further. Who is this man? Copyright 2014 Sharon A. Crawford)
This reads like fiction, but it is what happened (as far as my memory can well, remember). Fiction tools used are:
Dialogue – although with memoir you don’t have to remember it word for word. Dialogue shows the reader how you saw the people in your life and how you spoke then. Try to make your dialogue consistent with your age back then. Unless you were a child genius you probably didn’t talk like an adult. Also remember to use appropriate slang for the time period. “Awesome” wasn’t used back in the 1950s and 1960s – at least according to my memory.
The people involved are presented as characters with traits. For example, I’m shy and hide behind my mother. Dad tries to protect me. The man at the door is shown as drunk with how he looks to me and there is one word of dialogue from him.
Point of View – usually with memoir it is the memoir writer’s (you) POV but if you are writing about your parents and their story, you can use third person. Here it is my point of view. And as mentioned in last week’s post, your point of view can change now from when it was then. The trick is to put yourself back to that child you were at whatever age your story occurs and write from there. This is what I did here. With some of your scenarios, what you know and think now may be scurring around in your mind. It’s okay to add a bit of that, but make sure you word it as today’s take. This often works for comparison. But I wouldn’t use it for every scenario as it can get tedious. Some memoirs will cover the time-line gap, so today’s view could go in chronologically.
With fiction, I find many authors whose book manuscripts I edit, mix up their point of view use. Point of View doesn’t usually present as much of a problem in memoir because you are telling your story.
You can combine scenarios to a certain extent. For example, at the reception at home after my Dad’s funeral, I combine something one of my aunt’s said at another time (no story with the actual time she said it) with certain other things actually said at the reception. I was contrasting Mom’s country-born family with Dad’s city-born family and the interaction of the two “species.”
Which bring me to my final tip – as mentioned in last week’s post, each chapter should focus on one topic and its theme. For example, I have a chapter that focuses on gardening with my mother and father and its connection with our religious beliefs back then. So, no going on tangents here about what happened in school – those stories go into a different chapter or two or three. However, I do get into some of my friends I hung around with where it is connected to gardening and religion. When my friends and I played with our dolls outside in the backyard, we used to pull leaves off the trees and shrubs for the dolls’ food. My dad would charge out into the backyard and give us hell for doing so. Next day we’d be over at one of my friends in her backyard and get into a discussion about religion – she was Baptist and I was Catholic.
You see, how you can weave in your stories.
The above should give you some ideas about writing your memoir creatively. If you are in the Toronto area and want to learn more, I am teaching a memoir writing workshop, Saturday, February 22, 2014. Here are some details:
Getting your Memoir off the Ground:
Presented by the East End Writers’ Group
Always wanted to write your family’s story or your story but need some motivation and guidance? Sharon A. Crawford, who conducts Memoir Writing workshops for the Toronto Public Library, will teach this one-day expanded workshop on Memoir Writing. After a brief review of kick-starting your memoir using the senses, this hands-on workshop takes the writer into the nitty-gritty of writing the memoir. You will learn how to organize your memoir’s content, do research and work it into your memoir, deal with family flak, and not only start writing your memoir, but write an actual chapter and have it critiqued. Handouts provided. Bring photos and other memorabilia, pen and paper or the electronic equivalent.
Check out the full details on my website at
Sharon A. Crawford
Only Child Writes