The Truth About Memoirs — 6 Ways To Write A Memoir

The Truth About Memoirs — 6 Ways To Write A Memoir

Writers Write is a writing resource. This post is the third in our series, The Truth About Memoirs, and in it we offer six ways to write a memoir.

Continuing my series of posts on The Truth About Memoirs, I want to talk about ways in which you can tell your stories.

6 Ways To Write A Memoir

1.   Interior Monologue

  1. We overhear the memoirist’s unedited and uninhibited inner thoughts. We are intimate trespassers.
  2. We follow her stream of consciousness, dreams, inner life and experiences.
  3. The memoirist can express feelings, fears, prejudices that she wouldn’t share with another.
  4. Vicarious experience, intimate and close to the reader.

I can’t shake the memory of mother on my wedding day, the smell of vodka on her breath as she kissed me, the way she held my hand until it hurt, the look in her eyes, like she was an animal and I was abandoning her. Like Dad. Like Jena. It’s a persistent vision, like closing your eyes in bright light and seeing a kaleidoscope imprinted on the back of your eyelids.

2.   Dramatic Monologue

  1. We hear the memoirist speaking to the reader; we are addressed as a captive but passive audience.
  2. She is having a one-side dialogue with the reader.
  3. The memoirist is telling us what’s on her mind, drawing us into her world.

Most of us have mothers who bake cookies and drive us to after school piano teacher. Not my mother let me tell you. She drank vodka in her orange juice in the morning. She slept with my Matric dance date. She made my sister Jena sign an affidavit to assure our mother that her virginity was intact. Don’t think I’m making this up. Ask my Dad—he stayed until I was twelve and left. On my wedding day, she showed up like Elizabeth Taylor on a movie set.

3.   Letter /Email Narration

  1. Letters or emails are dialogue at a distance.
  2. The memoirist is speaking to another character for a certain reason.
  3. The second character can narrate his or her own letters back.
  4. Sometimes the memoirist is writing about rather than to another character for whatever reason.
  5. It can be a voyeuristic and intimate experience for the reader, privy to private thoughts and information between two or more people.

Dear Jena
I know you say you have not spoken to Mom since my wedding day, but I’m writing to tell you that she’s been up to her old tricks again. This is going to be a shock to you, sis, but she has signed herself out of rehab and got married to a man who could be our younger brother. Someone says he looks a bit like Dad. Men, vodka, emotional rollercoasters—this was always our childhood wasn’t it? She had the merciful blackouts and we were left with the memories.

4.   Diary Entries

  1. In a diary, the memoirist reacts to events as they happen.
  2. The diary gives structure to a memoir, as opposed to mere stream of consciousness or casualness of a letter.
  3. The audience is the diary itself and the reader; it creates intimacy at a remove – the reader is not addressed directly, but allowed into the memoirist’s story via the diary.

12 July
Today I got a call from Mom. (Note to self: Don’t answer Blocked calls again!) She wanted money. What’s new? She wanted me to help sign her out of rehab. I said no. She cried and I felt nothing. Nothing. It’s easier than feeling the other stuff—pain, anger, guilt. I don’t understand how Jena can leave me to deal with this on my own. She can say she’s cut herself off from Mom’s ‘toxic influence’ but why must I wear the emotional HazMat suit? It was a long day at the office and I didn’t need her Vodka-hoarse voice on the other side of the line.

5.   Detached Autobiography

  1. The memoirist is telling her story after it has happened, about what happened in the past – this distance gives the narrative a coolness.
  2. She is now in a frame of mind that’s changed since the event happened; she has changed a lot and has learned something from it.
  3. Often it has been another person in her life’s journey that has brought about this change and this other person features strongly in the story. It can be an animal too.

In July 1989, I had been married for three months and I’d been promoted to senior editor at Vantage House. It was the coldest winter Johannesburg had known. It was also the year my mother entered a rehab clinic for alcohol dependency. She was fifty-five years old and finally had a name for her disease. I was thirty-two and I had no neat label for my own disease. It would take me another ten years to learn to forgive her.

6.   Observer Memoir

  1. The memoir is an observer in the story, giving the reader a report of what’s happened not just to her – but also to someone else or her family or a group.
  2. Another person takes a major part in the action and dominates the story.
  3. This technique creates a comfortable distance for the reader to absorb the memoir.
  4. This technique allows the memoirist to frame and moderate the memoir so it reads like a non-fiction novel.

The moment she walked in through the doors, I could tell that she was drunk. When Katherine Smith walked into the ballroom of the Morrell Hotel, every eye was on her. She wore a white designer dress that increased her radiance like a spotlight on a movie set. She had that kind of beauty, a charm that was an electric web. It was only when you got to close, caught in those china-blue eyes, mesmerised by her smile, that husky voice, that you realised she was dangerous. And by then, it was too late. That day, there was nothing anyone could do. It was my wedding day and Katherine Smith was my mother.

Look out for my next post in the series: The Truth About Memoirs – 7 Simple Ways To Find Those Lost Moments

Posted on: 31st March 2015

7 thoughts on “The Truth About Memoirs — 6 Ways To Write A Memoir”

  1. Anthony Ehlers

    Hi Nathalie. The examples are original pieces I wrote to illustrate the viewpoints.

  2. Michelle Wallace

    Wow, this is really an eye-opener!
    I love the different perspectives.
    Thank you for sharing.

  3. Anthony! You just can’t do that! Now you have to write the rest of that novel because I’m dying to read it. 🙂

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