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Earlier this month I attended the Kansas Authors Club, District 2, retreat at Lake Doniphan Conference & Retreat Center in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. (Yes, the Kansas authors were brave enough to cross the state line. The Border Wars have been over for a long, long time.)

My favorite part of the day was the morning session with Kelly Barth on writing memoir. We discussed what memoir is, and how it differs from autobiography and from fiction. I’m speaking in my own words now, so don’t hold Kelly accountable for what I say, but I think this post is consistent with the discussion we had that morning.

What is Memoir?

Like autobiography, memoir must be true. But like fiction, memoir needs to have a story arc, a theme, an organizing principle beyond chronology.  Memoir sifts the facts of the author’s life through the story we want to tell. Not everything we have done in our life is relevant to the lessons we want to pass on to our readers.

Here is how Kelly described the “sifting” process of creating a memoir in her blog post on June 12, 2012:

For those of you participating in the daily struggle to write, I thought I might share my experiences with the early manuscript of the memoir. Initially, I wrote it out longhand–in marble covered notebooks in a crazy blue cursive script–to allow myself the freedom to say everything I wanted without it feeling “judged” or “finished.” When I typed the whole thing out, it was about 600 pages long. In this first draft, I had allowed myself to forget the advice “remember, your life is far more interesting to you than to anyone else.” After reading this tome, a good friend and editor said, “Tell me in one sentence what this is about.” When I told her, she then said, “Anything that isn’t about that, take out.” In the next revision, I cut the thing in half.

If you’re trying to write memoir, write in one sentence what your story is about. Then include your memories of life events that relate to that theme, and take out everything else.

But don’t begin there. Begin with trying to interpret for yourself the themes of your life. To help you interpret your life, think about the roles you have played in your family.

Memoir and Family Myth

Another point I took away from Kelly’s session was the notion of “family myth.” Each of us plays one or more roles in our family, and we often get assigned those roles whether we want them or not . . . and even if we think we do not deserve them.

For example, you might be “the good daughter,” or “the crazy one,” or “the workaholic,” or “the guy who is always late.” Family myths can be true or not true, and often are only partially true, based on circumstances long ago, before we became who we are today.

Our family members define what we do through the lens of our mythical family roles.  The stories that get told about us are stories that confirm the family’s myths about us, whether we accept their interpretation of the event or not.  To decide who we are to ourselves, we must analyze those roles given to us and determine which are valid and which are not.

Here is an interesting exercise if you are interested in writing memoir (and even if you are just seeking personal understanding of your role in your family):

Take an incident that is used in your family as an example of your role in the family.  (For example, the time you ran away from home when you were seven.)

  • Write out what happened – just the facts.
  • Write about how your family interprets that event. Here you get to elaborate on what other family members said about you – and continue to say about you – when that incident is re-told at family gatherings.
  • Then write about your feelings during that incident apart from what happened. When people bring it up, do you feel good or bad about it? Why? What of what they say is true? What is contrary to how you remember it? What do you think the incident says about you – then and now?

If you have several incidents that all relate to the same family myth about you – the same role your family assigned to you – perhaps you have a memoir in you. And perhaps you know its theme.

Even if you don’t want to write a memoir, you might try this exercise as a journaling topic.

Remember that you control your story . . . at least in your own mind.

Check out Kelly’s memoir, My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus.  Information about the book is available on her website.