I always thought writing a memoir was about the author, that if someone asked the question: What is your memoir about? There could only be one answer: Me. It turns out that this is not the case. A memoir is about much more than just me, and writing my own has helped me to understand just how much this needs to be the case.
Memoirs have different themes and story arcs surrounding important events and characters, just like a novel. A memoir is not an autobiography because, unlike an autobiography, it’s a story that has characters, scenes, dialogue, tension, conflict, and all the other components of a typical novel, or what you’d see in a movie. And yet, it’s all true, or at least it should be. The stories you’ll find in memoirs are about lots of things: falling in and out of love, near-death experiences, eating disorders, traveling, surviving abuse, neglect, war, infidelity, disability, and just about anything that has shaped a person’s life in some significant way.
People write memoir often because they feel compelled—sometimes not even knowing why—to share their story. Other times, the memoirist simply knows she has a good story and wants to make some money by writing and selling books. Books that read like fiction but are based on true events can have a big impact on the reader. I think this is because our lives are all so intertwined, because each of us have similar wants, hurts, needs, and successes that we express in our own unique ways.
My memoir. What’s it about?
Well, it’s not about what it started out to be more than fifteen years ago. I’m one of those writers who felt compelled to tell a piece of my story. Only it wasn’t really my story, at first; it was my sister Polly’s story. Polly died just a month shy of her fourteenth birthday. If I hadn’t been so consumed with my own trauma and drama at the time, being fifteen years old and pregnant at the time, I might have taken the time to grieve her death. What I know now is that my urge to write Polly’s story was the beginning of my grieving process and what served as a spiritual awakening of sorts.
My original story—Polly’s story—opened with a scene of my little sister dying in my oldest brother’s arms. As I wrote, Polly was coming alive inside me. I was channeling my sister. Her spirit gave me visions and sensations of being in her crippled body and mind as she passed away. Problem was, I couldn’t get through a page or two without being left curled up in a ball on the floor for hours sobbing. I put the writing away. About five years later, I pulled it out again. I cleaned some stuff up and signed up for a writer’s workshop. After the first class, I decided I couldn’t do it, but my husband urged me on, so I stuck it out. In the end, a writing teacher convinced me to change the story to my point of view. It didn’t help and I put it away again for a few more years.
About five years ago, I decided it was time to write my story once and for all. About three years ago, I started making it a priority and have my manuscript nearly complete. As part of the 2015 PNWA literary contest I entered earlier this year—where I took second place in the memoir/nonfiction category—I had to write a one-page synopsis. Sharing the synopsis is the easiest way to answer the question, “What’s your memoir about?” so here is a piece of it:
Glowing Houses is the story of a girl named Ruthie, number eight of nine kids, whose earliest memories include a house with dirt floors, crumbling concrete walls, and drinking water pumped from the ground. In a holler in the hills of southwestern West Virginia, the house was always being built while at the same time falling down; nothing like the houses in town, houses that glowed like a candle, from the inside out; houses that had matching windows, grass, inside bathrooms and shelves with food.
Getting pregnant at fourteen was Ruthie’s path out of the holler and her first chance at living in a glowing house. Just eight days before Ruthie gives birth, her little sister Polly dies. Even though they’d been dreading it, expecting it for years, seeing Polly’s crippled body and mind finally pass away was a shock to the whole family, but not as shocking as Ruthie getting pregnant. The shock, though, wasn’t greater for anyone than Ruthie herself; so ignorant, getting pregnant by doing the nasty had never crossed her mind. Besides, she was in love.
Ruthie’s dad kept the family, especially the girls, isolated and ignorant. He told his kids they were Supreme Beings and didn’t want them influenced by outsiders; fags, niggers, white trash, and people who used fancy words. Aside from Bibles given to each kid by the church people and a small book of poems written by a preacher in the holler where Ruthie’s mom was raised, they had no books.
A good memoir has a universal theme, something that other people can relate to as they are reading. That’s why a memoir, while it is about the author needs to be bigger than any one person. I didn’t know what the theme of my memoir was for a long time but the more I wrote the more I saw it showing up. Resilience. We are all faced with hard stuff in life and we all must develop some level of resilience to adversity in order to survive.
A food memoir, for example, might be about a person’s eating disorder, but its theme might be about addiction in a more general, universal, sense that caused the eating disorder. Moving through the eating disorder, and surviving it, builds resilience. People develop resilience to adversity in a number ways, but we all must, and we all do. And that’s why any memoir, while it certainly is about the “me” needs to be about something more universal—like resilience—in order to connect with the reader.
I have only a few more chapters to write before I finish a complete draft, but answering the questions about what my memoir is about (as well as other things about my progress or my writing process) stokes my writing fire. If you’re looking for motivation to write your story, I encourage you to let people know your intentions and welcome any questions. It can be hard to answer, and sometimes you won’t even have an answer, but just pondering the questions you’ll get will trigger memories or ideas that you might not otherwise tap into.
I, for one, would like to ask you, “What’s your story about?” Please share with me. I’d love to know!
“The reason God gave you a story is so you could tell it.” ~ Rev. Ed Bacon