You will find many tips in writing magazines that will list the essentials of writing a memoir: identifying your target audience immediately, gathering old photos, writing an outline of your life in five-year increments, and finding an editor. But this piece that you are reading is not about those myriad helpful hints that you will discover.
Recently I read Pulitzer Prize-winning author Maggie Smith’s memoir You Can Make This Place Beautiful. I'm struck by her words “I’m trying to get to the truth and I can’t get there except by looking at the whole.” Telling the truth is one of those essentials you won’t read much about. It takes great effort to get at the truth of your stories. To get at the truth of my life took time, years of thought and writing, and plenty of print in the trash. Writing a memoir is such hard work because the truth can be a ghost hidden in every thought.
Smith also says, “Every book begins with an unanswered question.” Questions guided the memoir’s development for her and for me. My primary unanswered question was: How did I go from being a nun to fighting for women’s equality?
It's not always pretty, but digging deep has to be done if the answer to your primary question (and what follows), is going to come together honestly. Looking at the whole takes time. One has to peek in, no, not peak, but study each chapter of one's life. Truth begins to unfold. Discovery happens if we are thorough and patient. This is important if we choose to write a memoir. The stories are of humans, like both sides of a coin: heads and tails, right decisions and wrong; caring behavior and cruelty. We must be willing to tell those stories, the nice and easy stuff with the very hard truths as we remember them. And we must bear the fallout, There will be negative reactions from family and, perhaps, friends, especially those who feel slighted or insulted.
A question Smith asks in her book got my attention. Is a memoir a ghost tour?" Plenty of ghosts harbored my sea of life. You will be haunted by the stories that appear as you write, whether your life entailed divorce, widowhood, family separation, parental neglect, a crime committed and paid for; or deeply-held troublesome passions, and dear ones who don’t talk to you anymore. Fallout for seeking, discovering, and publishing the truth has its price. Maggie Smith describes an incident where a short story now in her memoir that was earlier published in the New York Times elicited calls from her husband’s lawyer to stop the publication. Fighting this issue took time and money. Many memoirists have told of friends and family who no longer speak to them because of the stories they told.
As you write, you may be writing before you are even conscious of something that had occurred in your life. The truth will come out. And as you write your stories, their connective tissue will burst forth with answers.
You are writing your story for others to appreciate their own paths. The reader will recognize their own ghosts as well as their beautiful truths. It is your willingness to tell your truth that will speak to the emotions of your reader. Remember, it is your story and your memory. Others who were interactive in your events may have a different story. Don’t be threatened by their memories. Be confident of yours.
You are also writing for the joy of it. First is the joy of finishing your story. Writing and having a book published, either self-published or by a traditional publisher is a noble accomplishment. Satisfaction in getting your questions answered brings peace to your spirit.
A second reward is having others find meaning in their own lives because of what you have written. When Ellen O. told me “I’ve enjoyed your book” and specifically recalled that she had similar incidents, it fired my confidence. And when Nancy A. wrote an email with pages and pages of passages telling what the stories said to her, my nerves tingled with gladness. Then there will be your family who can’t wait to read it, your sister and cousins who appreciated the stories that elicited their own memories.
I had two special cousins and my sister, Maureen, who celebrated my book. Liam found a special silver pin, designed as an antique fountain pen to honor my writing. Words won’t express how touched I am by that gift. Another cousin, Colleen, brought her adult daughter to a luncheon where I was speaking. My nephew, Joe, and his wife, Georgianne, traveled 300 miles also to attend that luncheon. Then there are the numerous friends who support you by using their networks to help you market your book. My fellow writer and dear friend, Arnold, created a journal for me with the cover a replica of my book’s cover. These are the rewards that await you and empower you to be grateful that you told your story and give you hope in your path to success.
When you get an email from the publisher telling you that they would like to publish your manuscript, you will jump and shout as you cry out, “I’m going to get published.” You will still cry out that joy when you self-publish and make the book available on Amazon with your name on the cover, Your name, your book. Take the leap and write that memoir.