Memoir Writing: Organizing Your Life Stories

PuzzleFlowerThere are times when a writer sits and stares at a blank page or screen without a clue as to how to start a story. This is not a classic case of writer’s block, it’s more like the gear shift hasn’t been properly engaged. But once it’s moved from park to drive, the journey can begin. In writing, that nudge to get going may simply be to tell yourself, “Just start.” Begin at the beginning, the middle, even the end. None of it’s written in stone. The order, and the writing itself, can be changed and rearranged at any time.

When I first started the project that became This New Mountain (a memoir of AJ Jackson), I asked AJ for the basic facts of her life: birth date and place, family history, etc. I also gave her a tape recorder and told her to tell her stories as they came to her. As it turned out, AJ began with her divorce, which was the driving force that led her to become a private investigator. This is not how the memoir itself begins, and it’s not the foundation of the book, but it is an important part of the puzzle in understanding who AJ is. She continued to record the stories that were the most important to her because they were the ones that were closest to the surface, the ones she had continued to engage in over the years. As the stories came to life in my mind, questions also came up, and those led deeper into her past which, in turn, led to other, untold stories.

Writing down your most important stories first, your most vivid memories, is one way to “just start” the process of putting your memoir together. As in AJ’s case, one story will most certainly spark your memory of others.

To some, this may seem too haphazard a way of doing things.

Stacey Dubois, in an article for the Writers Digest blog, tells us that our “memory’s natural organization” is special when it comes to autobiographical memory. This “episodic memory (memory of events)…is unique in that all of the memories are relevant to YOU. Unlike other systems of memory, autobiographical memory contributes to the formation of your sense of self…the memories form the story of your life.” Ms. Dubois has these suggestions to take advantage of the way memories are organized naturally in the brain:

  • On separate sheets of blank paper, make a timeline for each sphere of your life (school, work, family, friends, etc).
  • On each timeline, segment and label the important periods.
  • Separate these periods from each other with defining events – turning points such as moves, milestones, deaths, etc. (these can differ from timeline to timeline).
  • Take notes on what you remember from each period, staying completely within one sphere at a time. It’s also a good idea to make your first pass over the activity chronologically, even if you are not planning to organize your memoir that way.

The main advantage of organizing the important periods of your life with all their turning points is that you’ll then have a detailed outline and the makings of the stories themselves. Another advantage of following Ms. Dubois’ advice is that it could help you decide what the main focus of your memoir will be (if you don’t already know). Once the foundations of the stories are laid out, you’ll be able to see patterns or themes, and ways to organize the memoir. You might even recognize you have the makings of more than one.

The most important thing, no matter how you do it, is to write the stories down. Don’t worry if the focus or the theme doesn’t come to you right away. Just start, and you’ll be surprised how all the paths begin to converge farther down the road.

Have you started writing down your life stories?

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First Steps to Writing a Memoir

Woman with typewriter.We all have stories inside ourselves – and the longer we live, the more we acquire. Our pasts are filled with quirky characters, impossible situations, remarkable adventures, and lessons learned. At some point, most of us think about writing it all down, if only to make sense of our lives and capture important moments from our past before time can snatch them away.

Before starting on the process of recording the past, a few questions should be answered.

Biography or memoir?

A biography is a life story, an account of a person’s life from beginning to end told by someone else. An autobiography is the story of your own life told by you (or dictated to someone else). Your history is a great gift to give to your friends and family.

An individual’s memoir is a biography or autobiography of the important events in that person’s life. It is focused, usually has a theme woven throughout, and tends to be more anecdotal. Memoirs are a good way to explore the “meaning of life” as you’ve experienced it in the context of certain events or within a particular period of time. A person can write multiple memoirs, each covering something different from life experience (but an individual will have only one biography).

As an example, President Obama’s biography/autobiography would chronicle his life from birth through the present, whereas his memoir might focus on his years in the White House.

My publisher tells me that bios and memoirs are the hottest selling books on the market right now. But it’s “who you are” that will be the selling point. So unless you’re a celebrity, making it onto the bestseller list will likely be an unfulfilled dream. That leads me to my next point. 

Overall goal of the memoir?

When I first began working on This New Mountain, a memoir of AJ Jackson, the reason was to help AJ leave a record for her family of the things she’d done as a private investigator, repossessor, and process server. But after I finished the drafts of a few chapters of her adventures, we both thought the audience of the book could be much wider – reaching beyond her circle of friends and business associates (see my post “Beginnings: The Goal of a Memoir”).

In my case, shifting the goal meant refocusing and strengthening the elements of fiction writing (scenes, dialogue, beginning-middle-end structure, etc) to create a piece of creative nonfiction that would appeal to a larger group of readers. At this point I knew the road to publication would be a long one, but a journey doesn’t start until you take the first step.

Some writers enjoy the process of writing for the sake of writing itself. For them, finishing a poem or larger manuscript – and knowing they have done their best – is an accomplishment that brings its own joy. Writing for yourself or for friends and family are both goals on par with the “loftier” one of publication.

Purpose of the memoir?

If you’ve decided you want to publish your memoir, ask yourself why.

Writing for revenge or betrayal

Your story can be about revenge, absolutely, but the story itself should not be wielded as a blunt object, a cat-o’-nine-tails, or a bludgeon. Instead, while writing about the hideous aspects of life, you should attempt to teach us something about the behavior of those involved, about your behavior, about all human behavior. Let us into your story by shedding light on our own dilemmas, fears, happiness, or wide-eyed wonder…. Writing a tale that seeks revenge, you’ll quickly see that tale as merely a list of hurts, which, when you get to the end of that list, is a list that may not interest even you anymore. Revenge as a topic is good; as an intent, it’s not.  ~ Marion Roach Smith, “Don’t Write A Memoir to Get Revenge”

Writing a story focused only on pain or as a means of self-help for others

Writing through grief and tragedy is a proven method to heal, but it is not a proven method for getting published. I say this not to be insensitive, but to bring needed attention to the fact that these stories are prevalent, and very few publishing houses are accepting them…. Life experience, or overcoming a personal challenge, is not enough expertise to help others, especially when it comes to physical and mental health. ~ Jane Friedman, “Five Common Flaws in Memoir Projects”

In “Writing Memoir: Art vs. Confessional” Susan Cushman writes:

There are plenty of opportunities to talk about the trauma in your life… If it’s healing you’re after, there are the traditional and private venues like the psychologist’s office and the church confessional. If you believe you just have to write about what happened to you, go ahead. But don’t try to get it published, unless you do the hard work of spinning that painful experience into the golden threads of an artful memoir.

Deciding on the type of biography you want to write, along with its goal and purpose, are the first steps that lead to the foundation of your memoir, and will drive the course of the entire manuscript. In future blog posts, I’ll talk about how to make a memoir more artful and less confessional.

Are you thinking about writing your biography or memoir?

Keeping the “Non” in Creative Nonfiction

As I’ve written in previous blog posts, my intention in writing AJ Jackson’s memoir was to stay true to her voice and to the goals she set for the book. There is one more truth we both dedicated ourselves to in our writing journey – the telling of the stories themselves.

Several steps went into the process of making sure the memoir remained truthful. After listening to AJ’s recorded stories and imagining them playing out like scenes in a movie, I wrote them as I saw them in my mind. If I needed more information or clarification, I consulted AJ. Organizing the stories came next. And when I thought the chapters were ready for proofing, AJ read them over and either gave her approval or let me know what needed changing. I edited, revised, and rewrote accordingly. AJ then re-read the stories and give her input again. We repeated this cycle until we were satisfied with the integrity of each chapter. Even after everything seemed right and ready, AJ sometimes came back and said, “no, this isn’t quite right” or even, “this isn’t what happened at all.” Her memory and my imagination often got mixed up somewhere in the telling and re-telling of her stories.

Because of this process, portions of chapters didn’t pass inspection – couldn’t even be reworked – and had to be deleted. The following, taken from a chapter originally titled “Fools Rush In,” is one of my favorite stories we ended up cutting from the final manuscript:

            I once had two cases working at the same time that were, at first, as different as night and day. A bank had hired me to repo a vehicle, and a private party had hired me to investigate Mel, the father of their grandchild. Mel was up to no good and I needed to gather evidence so he could never get visitation rights with his daughter. Well, this repo and this private deal started intertwining. The same names kept popping up in both investigations. These were names associated with the local drug industry – and we’re not talking Walgreens. In the middle of all this complicated business, I went knocking on doors in the South Valley, handing out my business card, and asking people to give me a call if they saw or heard anything about Mel, my “long-lost nephew.”

            I decided to hit one more stucco-front business, the last one on the block, before I took a break. The mom-and-pop taco stand I’d passed a few minutes before would do just fine for lunch. Sitting in the shade of a turquoise umbrella in front of the taqueria, chugging a coke full of perfect cubes of ice sounded like heaven just about then. Even the cicadas complained about the heat.

            An old man dragged a rake across the rocks in front of the building. The landscaping was already pristine, not so much as a shadow out-of-place.

            “Looks good,” I said as I walked past the groundskeeper and headed for the front door. He stopped raking and squinted at me like I was crazy.

            When I stepped through the doorway, I knew why the guy had given me such a strange look. The inside of the place was empty, gutless, except for a card table, a handful of folding, metal chairs and the five goons who occupied them.

            “What’s going on here?” I blurted out. Two of the guys stood up. The others kept looking at the cards in their hands, smoking away, drinking their Dos Equis.

            “What are you doin’ here?” said one of the polite gentlemen with a hairnet on his head and a silver crucifix hanging down the front of his black t-shirt.

            Then my brain turned on. Take one manicured landscape outside, add shell of a business inside, plus scary – yet religious – goons, and I’ve got…trouble.

            “Sorry.” I backed up. “I must have made a wrong turn.”I went through the door, took a few nonchalant steps, and ran.

            The next day, a lady who lived across from this “business” called me. I had knocked on her door and given her my card. She was sorry, but she was too scared to give me any information, and “would you mind not coming by again?” Of course I didn’t mind. I had no intention of going back there.

            Two days later, the neighbor lady called me back. Somebody had broken out every window in her house, and “if you don’t mind, I’m just going to throw your card away, okay?”

            Not long after that, I got another call. “Lady, you stay out of my neighborhood,” a deep voice told me, “or you better be packin’ if you ever come back.” Another Dirty Harry, you-better-be-packing routine. It gets cornier every time I hear it.

            Well, I didn’t go back, thank you very much. I later learned that place was a money laundering business involving one of Albuquerque’s finest citizens. I ended up finding the repo I was looking for in a garage on the west side. And Mel ended up in prison on drug charges. I found enough evidence against him that when he got out, he only had supervised visitation with his child.

This story had potential and included elements of tension and humor. What was the problem, then? It just wasn’t true. The two cases mentioned in the first paragraph – though both real – weren’t the correct ones. And AJ didn’t find anyone in the empty building, so no goon actually confronted her. I had misunderstood and over-imagined the stories I heard and (because of these and other complications) this particular piece couldn’t be saved. If I had been writing a novel instead of a work of creative nonfiction, I would have left the scene in, expanded it and spiced it up, and had a lot more fun getting AJ out of her scary predicament.

This New Mountain uses all the elements of a fiction story – scenes, internal and external dialogue, tension, imagery, a well-developed main character – but because the stories are true (but read like fiction), the book is considered a piece of creative nonfiction. The process of keeping the integrity of the memoir intact was time-consuming but worth it to stay true to AJ and her life.

If you’ve read a good memoir lately, what did you like most about it?

Breaking the Writing Rules

Everyone uses clichés to some extent when they speak. They stick in our brains and it’s easier to let them out rather than try to think up some other descriptive phrase. If you listen to AJ Jackson tell a story, it won’t be long before you notice her use of clichés – phrases like, “yelled to high heaven,” “turn them out like clockwork,” and “drive like a bat out of hell.”

In normal conversation, clichés are fine, and in writing dialogue it’s also acceptable if that’s how a particular character speaks. But in narrative, using a cliché to describe something is considered lazy writing. Coming up with an alternative to a cliché can take some thought, but doing so makes a piece of writing unique and more fulfilling to the reader. 

For This New Mountain, I broke the rules a bit in regards to clichés. But if I didn’t include these kinds of common phrases as part of the narrative voice, the memoir just wouldn’t have been true to AJ. It wouldn’t have sounded at all like she was the one telling her stories. In this case, the way she talks and her internal dialogue are unique to her, clichés and all.

Another choice I made in breaking writing rules had to do with sentence structure. We’re taught in school that run-on sentences and sentence fragments are bad, bad, very bad. Again, in dialogue it’s normal. I did away with the run-ons, but I included sentence fragments in the book to make it consistent with AJ’s way of speaking. Sentence fragments also work great when trying to make a point, build tension, or move through an action scene. In the following excerpt from the chapter “Gone in Six Seconds,” one of AJ’s helpers has just talked AJ into letting her “steal” a repo, and AJ is watching and waiting from her car parked outside the owner’s house:

Cherise nodded her head, closed her eyes for just a second, took a deep breath, and jumped out of the car. I started counting.

One thousand one. Cherise was at the end of the driveway. One thousand two. She was at the driver’s door. One thousand three. She put the key in the lock. One thousand four. She was in the pickup. One thousand five. Still in the truck. One thousand six. No engine turned over. Faster, Cherise! I glanced at the light in the window. Nothing seemed to be moving inside the house. One thousand seven. The engine was still silent. One thousand eight. Now I knew something was wrong for sure.

From an early age, we’re taught that breaking the rules is wrong and can lead to some unwelcome consequences – traffic laws are in place for good reasons. If the rules are broken too often in a piece of writing, it can be distracting to the reader, but when it’s done with intent, it adds flavor to the writing.

Do clichés drive you batty? Is there something you’re willing to overlook in a story because the rest of it is so engaging?

Beginnings: The Goal of the Memoir

When I first met AJ Jackson, her reason for wanting a book written about her life was to leave a record behind of the things she’d done in the business of private investigating, repossessing, and process serving.

“I’m not getting any younger,” she said. “If I wait too long, it won’t get done. And I want my children and grandchildren to know what I’ve gone through.”

After I finished the drafts of a few chapters of her adventures (that later became This New Mountain), we both thought the memoir might appeal to others outside her family. It seems these chapters captured the same excitement I felt when I first listened to AJ tell her own stories.

So I shifted gears. The audience for the memoir would be much wider. The book’s appeal would even reach beyond her circle of friends and business associates to include those who read crime novels and have an interest in the profession of private investigation. Someone who wants to know how the mind of a private eye works (and the tricks they use) will want to read the book.  Baby boomers will also enjoy the memoir, as will anyone who likes to read about ordinary people working in unconventional jobs. If you want to know the ins and outs of how a real repo-man (or woman) works – don’t watch the TV show – get AJ Jackson’s memoir. And if you’re looking for encouragement to step out of your comfort zone, this is a good book to read.

When we broadened our audience, AJ also added to her goal for This New Mountain. She wanted to encourage others to face their fears – if she could do all the things she did (while being scared to death), she wanted others to know they could do the same.

In one interview AJ told me, “What I’d like to get across to the reader is to never give up. Whatever you’d like to try in life, just give it a shot. Because you’ll never know if you don’t try.” Like I’ve said before, she thinks everyone just needs a little bit of courage.

Ultimately, the goal of any book is to tell a story the best it can be told. Through these twelve years of writing, revising and reworking, questioning and listening, I’ve done all I can to accomplish that one major goal and stay true to AJ’s own intentions.

If you were to write a memoir, what would your goals be?

Beginnings: The Voice of a Memoir

When authors start out on their writing journey, they’re often told to find their Voice – that thing that makes their writing unique among thousands of other voices in print. “Finding” isn’t really the right word, though, as if they had it once and then lost it somehow.

Developing an authorial voice is more what a writer does. It’s a long process, and it takes reading the masters in many genres. It takes sitting down and writing for years, getting comfortable with the true sound of words and cadence, experimenting with complexity of language, playing with the rules. When she “finds” this voice – this style – it flows naturally in a story and is found throughout an author’s body of work.  

Narrative voice is something else found in fiction – the voice of the point of view character or narrator that carries the reader through the story. The voice of the author and narrator are tied together. (For a more detailed discussion of authorial and narrative voice, go to this article by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake). 

To make This New Mountain as genuine as possible for the reader, I put aside my own developed voice and my own style in favor of writing the memoir in AJ Jackson’s voice. Doing so wasn’t as difficult as I first thought it would be. I listened to hours of AJ’s recorded stories (often more than once), had lengthy phone calls with her several times a month, and met with her on a regular basis. While stringing words into sentences and sentences into chapters, I heard AJ clearly speaking to me in my head. My goal as I wrote was for the reader to also hear her – as if she was sitting across the table, sharing a pot of coffee while telling her adventures in her own straightforward, unpolished style.

I hope friends and family will recognize the person they love in the pages of This New Mountain. And I hope readers who are new to Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson will quickly learn to love this country-wise woman with her unique voice.

You will find a bit of me in there, too – my own voice woven into the fabric of description throughout the book. I couldn’t help seeping in. After all these years, AJ is a part of me the way the lives of all true friends become entwined.

Of the authors you enjoy reading, and keep going back to, is it their style of writing, their storylines, or their characters you like the most?

Beginnings: Choosing a Book Title

Along with the first tentative outline for the memoir This New Mountain, I brainstormed a list of titles, thinking if I had that settled it would help me move forward with the book. This list included Born to Serve, Liberating Process, Liable to Confound, and In Lieu of Surrender. I thought these were clever, catchy titles considering many of the stories in the book had some kind of connection to the laws of the land – thank goodness none of them made it past the first stage. There was only one – The Amazing Life of Ann Jackson – that I seriously considered. But none of these choices truly grabbed hold of me and said, “This is it, this is the one.” They didn’t speak about AJ’s past or her future or her now. They just didn’t feel right.

In my own experience with picking a title for my fiction writing, I either know right away what it is or within a few chapters after the story gets going. So I didn’t worry when no concrete title surfaced for AJ Jackson’s memoir. One would come to me in time.

As usually happens when I write without a title, there came that day I just couldn’t write another word. Seeing an empty space on the title page above my name and in the header/footer made me freeze up. Like having an odd type of writer’s block. I sat and stared at the page for the longest time and could not put one more word to paper (or screen).

But I needed to move forward, and that’s when I came up with a solution without actually choosing a working title. I needed something either bland or outlandish, but not something I would grow attached to or mind tossing out when a real title came to mind. Don’t ask me why (because I don’t have an answer), but within a few minutes of realizing I needed such a thing, I had my throwaway title: Dirty Underwear. No, you’re not allowed to ask why.

So the book started out as Dirty Underwear: A Memoir of AJ Jackson. Catchy title. Now I could at least finish the chapter I was working on when writer’s block hit, and move on.

It wasn’t too long after that, while searching the web for quotes I wanted to include with each chapter name, I found this:

We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. ~ Ursula Le Guin

And there it was. I had found the true title of AJ Jackson’s memoir. It embodied what all the others lacked – strength in today, while suggesting movement and something that existed before.

Goodbye Dirty Underwear, hello (thank goodness) This New Mountain.

Dirty Underwear is still the title I use when I don’t know a story or its characters well enough to come up with one right away. It works simply because it doesn’t fit and doesn’t have to, and because giving it up isn’t a hard thing to do. I don’t normally go a long period of time without penning a title. Maybe my mind works subconsciously to come up with a suitable one just because it doesn’t want the alternative attached to my stories. Whatever the reason, my throwaway title works every time.

Do you have a mind trick you use to fool yourself (like setting your clock ahead so you won’t be late), or am I the only strange one out there?

Beginnings: Dealing with Comfort Zones

I wasn’t the first to suggest AJ Jackson’s “adventures” would make a good book. Nearly everyone she came in contact with said the same thing. One of the major appeals of her stories is that she’s a regular person in an unconventional job doing things most people would find uncomfortable, even frightening. Don’t we all wish we had that kind of courage?

When we first met, we both worked for the same attorney – AJ as a private investigator/process server, and I as a secretary. She came in several times a week to pick up and drop off documents, and while she was in the office, she shared her newest adventures. While I listened, I would shake my head and say things like, “you’re kidding” and “my goodness” and “that’s crazy” in response to her latest I-almost-got-bit story or I-almost-got-shot story or I-almost-got-[fill in the blank] story.

After one especially exciting storytelling session, I offered to write her book. She didn’t say “yes” right away. When she finally did tell me she wanted to give it a try, my stomach twisted in knots. Writing AJ’s memoir would be a challenge. First, this was not my memoir, these were not my memories. And second, I wrote fiction (specifically science fiction and fantasy) and not nonfiction. But I’d committed to doing it, so I pushed through my doubts and fears, and began a practical approach to writing my first memoir.

AJ recorded her stories on a tape recorder, then I listened to her voice and let it guide me as I retold her adventures. The next six years were one cycle after another of outlining, research, writing and rewriting – with AJ proofing – and then more writing and revising. I finished a first complete draft in 2006. A professional edit of the manuscript brought the memoir back into seemingly endless cycles of digging deeper, reworking, rearranging, and rewriting. After six more years, the manuscript was as ready as we could make it for publishing.

And that’s where This New Mountain is now, in the hands of the publisher and waiting for (what we hope is) just one more round of proofing before going off to the printer and then distribution. 

Though I wasn’t the first person to say AJ’s adventures would make a good book, I’m pretty sure I was the first to offer to write that book. Without her example of a no-comfort-zone life and stepping out of my own comfort zone, I never would have had the chance to know the exceptional woman who is Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson or start on my own publishing adventure.

Have you ever stepped out of your comfort zone – and found a treasure because of it?