If you have a story to tell, then tell it! Begin writing your memoir today with five easy steps from award-winning author and SA Writers College tutor Alex Smith.
Smith is the author of Algeria’s Way, Four Drunk Beauties, Agency Blue, Drinking from the Dragon’s Well and Devilskein & Dearlove. Her writing has been shortlisted for the SA PEN Literary Award and the Caine Prize for African writing, and has won a Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature and a Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award. She lives in Cape Town with her partner, their book-loving baby boys and their dogs.
1. Determine your target reader. Is it you, your family or ‘The World’? A memoir is a true, or more accurately, an honest story – it is as true as your view of the events can make it true; it is a portrait in words, and your depiction needs to be as honest as you can bear to make it. However, depending on your audience, you may decide that some things are best left out, either because they may impact another person’s privacy or even safety, or because they could be distressing for your reader. It will be your honesty that will bring your story and the people who are part of your story, to life.
2. Write a focus statement. A memoir is not an autobiography in that it shouldn’t be an exhaustive account of every aspect of your life. A memoir should focus on a particular time of your life, an experience, or a recurring theme. For example, my memoir, Drinking from the Dragon’s Well, covered my two-year experience of teaching English in China. Your focus could be a longer time span, for example ‘childhood’. It might also encapsulate experiences such as travel, triumph over adversity, abuse, addiction, mental disease, grief and loss. Your focus statement can be your temporary memoir title – seeing it each time you open your file will remind you to stay on track and keep your writing relevant to your theme.
3. Pin down that ‘Big Bang’ moment. You want your memoir to be engaging, so think like a storyteller. Bring in tension, suspense, highs and lows. Create a compelling story arc: a beginning, a middle and an end. To find your Big Bang moment, draw from memory a dramatic moment around your theme – a highpoint or a lowpoint – and write 200 words in first-person perspective (i.e. using ‘I’).
4. Brainstorm. Recall memories of events around your theme, and jot them down under your Big Bang paragraph. Aim for about 30 to 40 events, and write them down quickly as single phrases. When you’re done, date the events roughly and sort them into chronological order. Number your events. These will be your chapters. You don’t need to write your memoir in chronological order. Write around the difficult parts; you’ll get to them, but don’t let them hamper the flow of your writing.
5. Make a weekly writing schedule. Begin writing by picking the event from the list you made in step four that you most feel like writing about. Think about a conversation that took place as part of that memory. If you can’t remember the exact words, imagine words that may have been said between the people who feature in that situation. Write a scene that puts the reader in your shoes. Finally, extend that scene to a thousand words or more, and there you have your first chapter.
This article was originally published in The Penguin Post, a magazine from Penguin Random House South Africa.
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