You, as a memoirist, want to write about people that “readers
bond with and rootfor,” writes Angela Ackerman, “and this happens because of one
very important word:EMPATHY.”
“When characters are unique yet well-rounded and familiar in
some way, we connect with them,” Angela continues. “We empathize with what they
are going through, become tense when trouble hits, and relax when they emerge in
one piece. We care about what happens to them becauseour emotions are engaged.”
You and I, as memoirists, have a big responsibility: to
create realistic, fleshed-out main characters in our stories—not all the people,
but central figures. Our job: craft believable individuals.
The stars of our narratives, the heroes, need to have:
What trait is most prominent? His worst trait? Her most
What is his passion? What are her life’s goals? Did he drop
out of high school to fight in World War 2? Does she have her PhD?
We pinpoint what makes these details unique within the
context of our lives and stories. If she’s wealthy, or if he’s just barely
scraping by—and if that is significant info for our readers—then we include it.
We use all five senses to round out our main characters. We
let readers see, smell, hear, feel, and taste what we experienced with our heroes.
Does she usually smell like lilacs? Or garlic? Does he have
red hair and freckles? Does she have dark skin and white hair? Does he smell
like coal because he works in a coal mine? Do you wish he used deodorant? Are
her hands soft and well-groomed, or are they rough and chapped? What does his
voice sound like? Is she cute as a bug’s ear? Does he have a birth defect? Does
he wear too much aftershave? Is she super-organized? Is he sloppy?
We want our readers to feel they know our main characters
and can relate to them, care about them.
Analyze and then include your main characters’body
language: “Sometimes what people say without actually speaking tells us a whole
lot more than what comes out of their mouths,” writes Melissa Donovan at Writing Forward blog. “Using body language to communicate is natural. We all
understand it intuitively.… [C]losely observe people’s body language and learn
how humans speak without words so you can bring unspoken communication into
Our readers want to enter our stories with us. They want to
identify with us, bond, cry, laugh, worry, and hang in there with us all the
way to the end.
You’ll enjoy reading more about creating empathy through action,
a person’s flaws, self-doubts, and mistakes in Angela’s post, “3 Quick Tips To Help Readers Connect To Your Hero.” (Keep in mind the post is about developing
fictitious characters, but Angela’s tips are important for real people in your
memoir. Just be sure you’re honest and accurate in fleshing out your real
Again: Include only those details that are unique within the
context of your stories. If a bit of description is significant info for your
readers, include it.
More next week on fleshing out our main characters.
Simplify Writing Your Memoir with Three Best Practices
The number one roadblock to writing memoir is where to start.
Rolling in our heads are many wonderful stories involving a great number of
learning and growing experiences. This is especially true as we consider God’s
blessings and how he changed our lives. We want to get it all out and don’t
know where or how to begin. The best way to begin is to simplify.
First, decide to write a memoir, not an autobiography or
family history. This keeps you from wandering in uncontrolled directions and it
defines your parameters for research.
Time periods are what distinguish the three story types.
Autobiography is from birth to today. It is an autobiography
if you write about yourself and a biography if you write about someone else. Celebrities
and politicians often are subjects of biographies and autobiographies.
Family history uses genealogy, photos, and stories to tell
about your ancestors. You may start several centuries ago and stop at any date
Memoir covers a short time period or series of related
events such as childhood, teenage years, military service, trauma, spiritual
journey, and so forth. Your stories tell key experiences that influenced you
and how you changed, such as Growing up Amish by Ira Wagler and The Liars’ Club
by Mary Karr.
Books of the Bible are mixtures of the three types. Biblical authors didn’t
write to display types, but to show God’s compassion to humans with stories told
through laws, history, wisdom, prophecies, hymns, poems, and letters.
Second, define your motivation for writing. All creatures
feel the need to be connected, whether honeybees or humans, wolves or whales,
amoebae or anteaters; whether by village, tribe, pack, household, school, work,
neighborhood, city, county, state, country, religion, or politics.
What are your reasons for wanting to be connected?
Do you want to become famous?
Make loads of money?
Find personal enjoyment?
Honor family legacy?
Give back to the community?
Help your children and grandchildren
understand and appreciate their heritage?
Find personal or family healing?
Share your journey of faith to inspire others?
Set the record straight?
Marriage and family therapist, author, and memoir writing
instructor Linda Joy Myers puts it this way:
“The most important ingredient in writing a memoir
a passionate reason to get the story on the page,
a ‘fire in the belly’ feeling
that what you have to tell is important
Aspiring Olympians become motivated by watching winning
Olympians and noting their times or scores. The Olympians-to-be wrote the winning
times on a note attached to a refrigerator door or cover of a spiral notebook.
It’s okay to have more than one motivation, but more than three muddies your
focus and can be overwhelming. Think of how your story not only will make a
difference in your life but in the lives of those who read it.
Third, focus on key events by making a list of memory
joggers, brief notes to help you remember experiences. Memory joggers speed up
your writing process and give you freedom to write.
Your goal in listing memory joggers is not perfection in
details; it is to remember that events occurred.
You could outline your entire life story using memory
joggers, similar to the approach Linda Spence takes in Legacy: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing Personal History. She divides a life into nine major segments:
beginnings and childhood, adolescence, early adult years, marriage, being a
parent, middle adult years, being a grandparent, later adult years, and
reflections. In each segment, she lists questions to help you remember what
might have been going on in your life. She has more than 400 questions
throughout the book.
Start your list of memory joggers by preparing nine pieces
of paper or computer files, each with one of Spence’s major life segments at
the top, or whatever segments fit your memoir’s purpose.
In each segment, write a brief line or two about activities
you were involved in during that time. Your list could include a handful of
activities or dozens. Don’t write complete sentences or paragraphs and don’t
try to write a story; just bits of information you will refer to later when
writing your stories.
Here are a few prompts to get your juices flowing:
Old family photographs
What you were doing when big news events occurred
Your first car wreck
When you learned to ride a bicycle
Letters from family and friends
Newspaper on the day you were born or other dates you
select; search your browser for vendors
Family heirlooms: jewelry, books, furniture, clothing,
dishes, and so forth
Names of family members and friends
Persons who most influenced you, for better or worse
Those who guided your faith journey
Firsts: first date, first driving lesson, first job, first
child, and so forth
Accomplishments and failures with lessons learned
Saddest and happiest events
Death of a loved one
Friendships gone bad
With these three tools–story type, motivation, and memory
joggers–you will be well on your way to a satisfying and successful journey of
writing the memoir you want.
“The Samantha White book arrived this afternoon,” my friend wrote
in an email, “and I'm about 30 pages into it already. Boy, can I relate! Thank
you so much for suggesting it.”
I had mentioned to my friend—let’s call her Erin—that she
might enjoy Samantha’s memoir, Someone to Talk To: Finding Peace, Purpose, and Joy After Tragedy
and Loss, and Erin ordered Samantha’s book that very
About 24 hours after Erin started reading Samantha’s memoir,
she sent another email: “What a gift…! Samantha’s path, experiences and emotions
are so very similar to mine that it is uncanny.… It is such a relief to hear
others felt or feel the same way I do.”
Before long, Erin wrote again: “On page 177 in Samantha's book she states
for the first time she has fibromyalgia. OMG! I knew it, I knew it, I knew it!
Both in our 70s, she and I have walked parallel lives on opposite coasts. No
wonder her words so resonated with me.…
“Other than the Bible, her book is probably the most
impacting and significant book I have ever read! Honestly. Our paths and
feelings are so very similar. On almost every page I could say ‘That's me!
That's exactly me!’ Only someone who has been there can have even an inkling of
the pain we suppress and try not to self acknowledge.
“Thank you again, Linda, for mentioning Samantha's book to
me. No longer feeling so alone, it is a comfort to read about someone who has
lived this and survived and, more importantly, thrived! Telling her story
helped heal her and it is a significant step in helping with my healing.”
Some of you—perhaps many of you—
fear your story is not worth telling.
You worry no one would want to read your memoir.
I hope you will reconsider and write your story.
You lived your story
you can bless others with and through it.
Think how exciting and rewarding that would be.
Think of how moving it would be to learn
your story could help answer someone’s prayers.
Think of the way God could use your memoir
to bring healing and hope.
Put yourself in Samantha’s place: What would you feel if you
received messages like Erin’s?
Samantha emailed: “Passing Erin’s words on to me, the
message that my book is helping and inspiring her, was a blessing. It is what I
prayed for, all the time I was writing it. ‘Please let this book fly on wings
to those who might derive some comfort, courage and inspiration from it.’
Please thank Erin for me, for her words, which are an answer to my prayers.”
Did you catch that? Samantha prayed while she wrote her
memoir. She asked God to give others comfort, courage, and inspiration from her
experience and her memoir. How exciting is that?!
You, too, can pray while you write.
Who knows what God might do through your story?
In her earlier guest post here at SM 101, Samantha said writing
her memoir was “among the toughest, most draining, most rewarding things I have
ever done” but her painful past and the tough job of writing her memoir brought
about blessing and healing for her and others like Erin.
But there’s more to Samantha’s story. Personal Life Coach,
memoirist, and retired psychotherapist, she wrote:
“When I moved to another state I had to leave my private
practice of psychotherapy behind, and discovered that I missed doing my life’s
work and needed to develop a new practice, with a new emphasis. And so my life
coaching practice was born!”