I have yet another fantastic guest blogger with me today, this time discussing a super important issue I know a lot of memoir writers need to hear. They might not want to, but it's essential. So, please welcome author Ruth Clare to the blog!
Narrowing the Focus of Your Memoir
Many people want to write a memoir because they have a big story to tell. But there is a big difference between needing to write something for personal reasons, and crafting a story that will find a home in the market place.
Most memoir writers do not struggle to find material, rather to get rid of it. But get rid of it you must. If you want to create a publishable book, you have to be able to separate yourself from content that is important to you as an individual to bow down to the story you are trying to tell.
But when so many moments of your life seem worthy of attention, how do you narrow your focus?
My advice on this boils down to two essential points.
1. Kill your darlings
I am sure most people have heard this little gem before, but for those who haven’t, this idea relates to getting rid of any wonderfully shiny or brilliantly entertaining pieces of writing that you may deeply love, but which don’t advance the story you are trying to tell. This can be especially hard when writing a memoir. The darlings you might be killing may be deeply personal events. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write about them. It does mean, if you are serious about creating clarity for your reader, putting them into a separate folder and using them in a different way at a different time.
When I was writing my book, there was one analogy I thought showed a depth to my poetic soul that would blow the minds of people reading it. I tried about twenty different ways to weave that sucker into my writing, but alas, the language of that piece just didn’t work with the voice I wrote in, so I had to let it go. I still think it is the perfect way of describing what happened, but as I would have had to change the entire voice of the narrator to make it work (something I seriously considered doing as I loved it so much), I ended up burning it as an offering to the Writing Gods, and having a memorial for it on my website instead.
2. Your life as argument
I heard a piece of advice (from a podcast I listened to years ago and can no longer find) that helped me enormously when it came time to edit my manuscript. The wise person being interviewed said she saw memoir as a piece of non-fiction writing where you are making an argument for something, and your life story just happens to be an illustration of the point you are trying to make.
The example she gave was that someone could write a memoir making the argument: life is better when you share it with a cat. With this as your structural backbone, you could then draw examples from your life that demonstrated the point you are trying to make.
When I went about applying her idea to my own book, it took me months of driving myself bananas to come up with something that worked. I had stories from my childhood, stories from veterans I had interviewed about their war experience, research into PTSD, The Vietnam War and the psychological impact of war. Every day I asked myself, how the hell does this all fit together? What do I want people to understand after reading my book?
I decided the ‘argument’ I was trying to make was: If we don’t look after veterans, it is not just them, but their families who pay the price.
This was a very effective way to separate out the stories that needed to be included in my book from the ones that didn’t. That’s not to say it was easy, but I loved the way this concept stopped my memoir from being only about myself as an individual and broadened it into something larger and richer.
A memoir is not a journal. It is something you are writing for an audience. If you can’t make tough decisions about what belongs and what doesn’t, you will never create the clarity necessary to transform a bunch of stories into a book.
Ruth Clare has been a professional writer since 2004. Her memoir, Enemy: a daughter’s story of how her father brought the Vietnam War home was published in March 2016 by Penguin Books. She has also recently completed the manuscript for a young adult novel called Hiding in Plain Sight.