Have you given any thought to why you want to write your life story?
There are many reasons for writing memoirs, different for every individual. Before you start on such a large project, you should have a clear grasp of your own purpose in order to avoid a lot of re-writing later. Without clarity, your story could be confused, rambling and full of holes. With a solid “Why” or purpose, your story will be coherent with a clear narrative drive that pulls your reader along and keeps him engaged.
The Purpose of Memoirs
Often when an individual wants to write their life story it may be a way to leave a legacy for family members. Sometimes, it’s a way to set the record straight. It could be a way to go deep into your own subconscious to discover more about yourself. Perhaps it’s an attempt to unearth family secrets which have avoided scrutiny for decades, bringing them into the light so you can discover the motivations and rationalizations of individuals now safely deceased.
Your purpose will inform and direct everything you write, from the material you include, to the style, the voice, degree of veracity and even your final output.
If your purpose is to leave a legacy for your family, you may decide to produce an autobiography, a complete life story. It can be told in photographs, video, audio or printed book or you could produce a serialized blog or a private family Facebook group. Autobiography tends to be factual, not straying from the truth as you recall it, although inevitably, other family members will remember it differently. As the saying goes, ‘there’s what you remember, there’s what I remember, and then there’s the truth.’ Which generally lies somewhere in between.
In the case of memoir, which is a carefully-selected series of scenes taken from a person’s life illustrating a specific theme or message, you’re more free to play fast and loose with the literal truth — for example, a novel based on a true story. A memoir might be the events leading up to an “aha” moment or life-changing decision. It could be a short essay about a single event that happened which had a profound effect on you. It could be simply an amusing anecdote that becomes hilarious by using a bit of exaggeration.
Factual vs. Fictionalized
Here’s an example excerpted from a short story. Contrast the first paragraph, a basic, strictly true description of an event devoid of all embellishment, with the second paragraphs which include emotion, reaction and careful observation to amplify the humour.
First treatment, factual, not embellished:
One afternoon, I decided to take my dog Willow for a walk. She gets very excited when we go outside for any reason, but this one day, she became so excited that she nearly knocked herself out when she ran into a wall. I shouldn’t laugh, but it was pretty funny. [Word Count: 51]
Now the second treatment, amplified and exaggerated for effect:
“OhmyGod! OhmyGod! OhmyGod! It’s the leash! She’s getting the leash! We’re going out, Out, OUT!!”
Willow raced around and around, through the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, ears flapping, knick-knacks crashing behind her, claws skittering on the hardwood until I could snag her attention long enough to get her to settle down.
“Willow, SIT!” Her butt thumped down on the floor, tail swishing like an overwound metronome as I repeatedly snapped the clip of the leash as an audible reminder – a non-verbal command.
But it was too much. She bounced up, then remembered the rules and plonked her bum down again. No sit, no leash. No leash, no walk.
She knew she had to chill and she visibly tried to settle, but: “OhMyGodWe’reGoingOUT!!”
As soon as I clipped the leash on her collar, she was off again, like a base-runner rounding third and sliding into home. Kitchen, dining room, living room and back to the kitchen, leash flailing behind, a disaster just waiting to happen, until BANG! She slid head-first into the the wall and sprawled in a heap.
Undaunted, she sat up, shaking her head. Quivering in anticipation, her eyes pleaded with me, let’s go, Let’s Go, LET’S GO!!!!! [Word Count: 205]
As you can see, it takes a lot more words to paint a vivid picture, but it all depends on your purpose, your “Big Why”. In the original event, Willow never actually hit the wall, though it was a close call, and she definitely didn’t say “OhMyGod!” at any point in the proceedings, though I imagine she might have done, had she the physical ability to do so. She was simply an excited dog who couldn’t wait to go for a walk. My purpose in writing this piece was to entertain the reader, not to describe the scene exactly as it happened. (And to play with divergent points of view, but that’s another discussion for another day.)
Why Purpose is Necessary
Determining your purpose early in the process and planning your end result will give you clarity and motivation. It’ll save you a lot of time and heartache later on because you won’t end up going down rabbit holes which lead nowhere. You’ll know which direction you want your story to go and what the final outcome will be: a book, a video documentary, a series of essays, a novel based on a true story or an episodic collection like the short stories of veterinarian James Herriott. It’s your choice, but you should make that choice early on to avoid many re-writes and confusion, later in the process.
Here’s your challenge:
Try to answer these questions to the best of your ability…
• What’s your purpose in writing your memoirs or autobiography?
• Who are you writing it for?
• Will it be factual or embellished?
• What do you want as your finished product?
Remember, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to e-mail me at: firstname.lastname@example.org