Five Ingredients Memoir Writers Must Have

Storage of kitchen utensils

Ingredients, you say?

Writing a good, perhaps great memoir requires a map or recipe. Any good recipe has a combination of ingredients which in the end equal what the cook hopes to present to her dinner guests, or in terms of memoirists, what we want to present to the reading public.

While I’ve been resting and healing these past few months, I’ve had time to ponder the reworking of my memoir. What is it lacking? What have I left out? Could I have mixed those ingredients a little differently to get a better result?

Differences between memoir and other genre

The best way to review what ingredients are needed foremost is to look at how writing a memoir differs from other genre:

  1. Memoir is, to the best of the writer’s ability, true. Drawn from a particular part of one’s life or an issue from which something is learned and can be shared with others, the facts are important in detailing scenes, characters, and places. Some facts may not be clearly remembered and in this instance, a disclaimer can be made to that effect.
  2. Memoir is somewhat more difficult in creating the story arc than other genre, such as fiction, science fiction, historical fiction, etc., because memoirists are dealing with reality and not the imagination. In imagining a story and putting it down in words, one has a bit more leverage than the facts of a memoir often allow. However, a clever writer has the ability to make memoir as interesting and readable as first-rate fiction.
  3. The memoir writer has a story to tell, and he or she is the only one who can tell that story. It is the writer’s story to tell despite what might be believed or felt by others. In other genre, this is not the case.
  4. Writing memoir requires having a sifter on hand or the delete button handy. Once you have chosen your theme, you must be careful not to allow stories to randomly enter the narrative of your work. Although a story or snippet has importance in your life, you must be willing to leave some stories out, especially those irrelevant to your theme.
  5. Lee Gutkind in his book, You Can’t Make This Stuff Upprovides the following explanation of creative nonfiction which sets all nonfiction apart from other genre. A good memoirist will keep this definition in my mind.

The banner of the magazine I’m proud to have founded and I continue to edit, Creative Nonfiction, defines the genre simply, succinctly, and accurately as ‘true stories well told.’ And that, in essence, is what creative nonfiction is all about. (p. 6)

The five ingredients or components listed above will produce a good end result. This isn’t to imply there are not other components necessary in writing memoir. But I believe these are basic to the nature and quality of good memoir.

Of necessity is writing as much as often as you can. I recently met with a writing coach to discuss returning to my manuscript after almost a year of not touching it. We agreed that two hours each day, at my best time of day, five days per week would be adequate to accomplish the next phase of my memoir. Also helpful is an accountability partner or group. I am using the Facebook group, ROW 80: A Round of Words in 80 Days.

In addition to writing, you should read, read, and read some more–the memoirs of others, creative nonfiction essays, books on creative nonfiction writing. And don’t forget classes available to you on the topic.

What are you doing to keep your recipe for writing memoir balanced? Any suggestions to offer? Feel free to share in the discussion in the comment section below.

Image attribution: Ella’s Kitchen Company Limited via Flickr

9 thoughts on “Five Ingredients Memoir Writers Must Have

  1. Like Luanne, my story spans several decades so it’s hard to chart a narrative arc. I guess that’s why some people call memoir a slice of life.

    1. Marian, love that you and Luanne stopped by with such a similar comment. See my comment to Luanne for a couple of suggested books from my coach. And likewise, blessings on your journey!

  2. Thanks, Sherrey. I love the way you put this together. My biggest problem is that my story spans so many decades that it is hard to shape because so many elements of my life intersect because of the length of time that the story evolved over.

    1. Luanne, you’re not alone (see Marian’s comment above) and I know several others who face the same problem. And there’s not much that I know or am aware of to handling this issue except to write it as smoothly and efficiently as you possibly can. My coach suggested two books which I’ll suggest to you: (1) Thinking about Memoir; and (2) Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington. I’m currently reading Barrington’s and deriving good advice and teaching. You might find some help in one of these. Best wishes on your journey.

  3. Sherry, I love this post. Thank you for sharing your recipe I am getting hungry to burn up my appetite for writing. I love the recipe. Good to be here always. blessings in all your endeavors happy writing. donna marie

    1. Donna Marie, thanks for leaving such gracious words for me. I love the words “I am getting hungry to burn up my appetite for writing.” Blessings to you and on your writing, Sherrey

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