I can hardly believe it. The first full draft of my memoir, My Mother’s Money, is done. Done. Every item of information that needed to go into it is down on paper. But right now, it’s mostly just information. Facts. Data. Dates. Only four or five chapters of solid narrative.
I won’t minimize it, though. Getting all that written was a huge challenge. It took two years. Maybe more, if you count the 10 years of note taking, fact checking, and organizing that writing the draft required.
Now the writing begins in earnest. It’s the shape and how to tell the story that are the most intimidating.
I’ve gorged on too many recently written books and blogs about memoir that urge writers to construct their memoirs to read like novels. I bought into that idea for a long time. My Mother’s Money even lends itself to a novelistic structure.
But the memoirs I like best don’t necessarily read like novels. So, I’ve been thinking about what appeals to me in memoirs:
Descriptions of how things were. What was the narrator sunk in? A place, a job, a family, a time, a tug-of-war?
Stunning surprises—a relationship unexpectedly collapses, or the least likely person flees—upsetting the (often fragile) status quo. (In one of her memoirs, Diana Athill opens with a description a charming novelist who came to a dinner party at her house. She took to him immediately, knowing he’d become a dear friend. That section, which is almost merry, ends, “Five years later this man killed himself in my flat.” How’s that for a boldly stated surprise?)
A thinking narrator, who isn’t averse to wandering off on tangents as he tries to see and comprehend connections. (Above my desk is a quote from someone, urging writers to “approach their subject for its mystery—as an investigator examining the unfathomable.”)
Sympathy or envy for the narrator’s plight or good fortune.
New knowledge about a lifestyle, religion, era, problem—a sort of “Oh, so that’s how stockbrokers are, work, live, think, affect our lives.”
Admiration for the narrator’s courage, as she worries a problem, even if those around her think she should just leave it alone.
Having my own ideas about how to write my memoir won’t make it any easier, but it’ll make it more authentic. And if a memoir is nothing else, it should be that.
What do you like in memoirs?
Find out more about My Mother’s Money: A Memoir of Suspense.