Memoir is not autobiography. Unless you’re a celebrity, readers need more incentive to engage with your life than simply a blow-by-blow chronology that begins at birth. Memoir requires a sharp focus, a specific topic; it pulls a single thread from your life and sticks with it, letting go of any characters and incidents that don’t pertain. In crafting Entering the Blue Stone, I had to say no to countless threads of family dysfunction—what family doesn’t hide plenty?—in order to spotlight the process of helping my parents navigate the final chaotic decade of their lives.
The author of memoir is the implicit protagonist. Although your inclination may be to hide behind the easier role of witness, it’s important to identify your active role in events, your needs and wants, your strengths and most important, your flaws, in order to bring out your own arc—in other words, how you changed over the course of the story. As the protagonist in Blue Stone, I learned, for example, to accept my inability to fix everything. It wasn’t until I began writing the narrative, though, that I realized how much my own anxiety, rather than my parents’ comfort, had driven my decisions.
Scenes are the power source of memoir. I took copious notes during my parents’ last years—it was my defense against insanity. When it came time to write the experience, I could recreate scenes verbatim. If your memories are less precise, don’t worry. Readers of memoir don’t expect tape-recorded dialogue. With your thorough knowledge of the people in your past, you can trust yourself to recreate the sort of language they might have used and craft scenes of emotional truth, if not verbatim records.
To get past the fear that the real people in your life may object to their portraits in your memoir, examine your motives in writing. Flattery or revenge or even writing just to prove a point—these motives lead to flat characters and one-dimensional stories. If your goal is to recreate a portion of your past in all its fullness and complexity, you will do your characters justice. You won’t need to apologize to anyone.
Molly Tinsley left the English faculty at the US Naval Academy to write full-time. Her story collection Throwing Knives won the Oregon Book Award; her most recent release is the memoir Entering the Blue Stone. Three years ago she donned the editor/publisher hat, co-founding the small press Fuze Publishing (www.fuzepublishing.com). She facilitates the workshops, Crafting Lively Dialogue and The Second Draft.