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Tips for Memoirists and Journal-Writers

Tips from Frank McCourt, Mimi Schwartz and others on how to look at your story, how to make it significant.

"Nearly everyone thinks their experiences are insignificant," Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes, tells interviewer Donna Elizabeth Boetig in the February 1999 issue of Writer's Digest: "For years I wondered if anything that had happened to me would have broad appeal to readers. But now I realize that everyone has a story. Nothing is significant until you make it significant. It's not what happens to you, but how you look at it."

Here are tips from McCourt and others on how to look at your story, how to make it significant.

Frank McCourt: When I sat down to write, the events that I recalled surprised me. I started writing about them and they developed retroactively. Anecdotes, conversations, images came back to me that I hadn't thought of for years. Then I zeroed in on all the things that were significant to me as a child, and now as an adult. This is a good thing for any writer to do. Sit and quiet yourself. Luxuriate in a certain memory and the details will come. Let the images flow. You'll be amazed at what will come out on paper. . . . It will insist on being told.

Mimi Schwartz, author of Writing for Many Roles (Heineman Boynton Cook): Find the unexpected. Push yourself to go beyond your first response. If you're writing about the worst day in your life, think, "What was good about it?" If you're telling about a victory, examine the defeats. A friend used to say about my endings, "You let yourself off the hook too easily." Now I finally say that to myself before I show it to him.

Homer H. Hickam, Jr., author of Rocket Boys: Tell the truth, but also tell a story. This simple admonishment often seems lost on memoir writers. It's your job as a writer always to tell a story even within the restrictions of the truth. A memoir, just as a novel, should have a plot with a beginning, middle and end. To make a story with a plot out of real life requires very careful judgment, choosing only those episodes in your life that keep your story on track.

Cynthia G. La Ferle, author of Old Houses, Good Neighbors (Self-Reliance Press): Anchor truth with detail. Concrete details keep the heartfelt essay from drifting into the shallow waters of cloying sentiment. To get a grip on specific details, you need to pay close attention. Use proper names — "Boston," not "city"; "Dutch Colonial," not "house"; "Dylan Thomas," not "poet." These details aren't mere decoration; they illuminate ordinary events, giving them power and credibility.

Kirk Polking, author of Writing Family Histories and Memoirs: Use this checklist as a guide to determine if your memoir is fulfilling your intended goal. Depending on the purpose of your book:

  • Have you covered the major turning points in your life?
  • Does the reader understand the educational, social and family framework from which you came?
  • Does the reader know you as a person — as separate from your role as a husband or mother or professional career person?
  • If you have included some ancestors, does the reader have a clear picture of them in relation to their times and why they are important to you?
  • Do your readers know how you feel about your life — what you're happiest about, proud of, regretful of, amused by, unreconciled to, thankful for?

Sheila Bender, author of Keeping a Journal You Love and A Year in the Life: Journaling for Self-Discovery: You may have had writing teachers who told you never to write "I" in an essay or to keep the number of times you wrote the word to a minimum. If you took that advice to heart, you may have stopped writing. . . . Just as you dream your own dreams, you live your own experiences. You are the filter for what you see, hear, taste, touch and smell in this world. It is not only OK to report, "I watched the leaves of the poplar trees blowing silver side up in the wind as my father told me my grandmother was dying," it is imperative for good writing. You must own your experience, every detail of it, to write well about it.

This article appeared in the February 1999 issue of Writer's Digest.

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