5 Outstanding Books for Memoir Writers
When compiling this list I realized that most of the recommendations are books about plotting. This makes sense because good memoirs employ a sound story structure – one similar to yet distinct from novels (more about that later). Though some of the books listed are unlikely choices for a memoir-writer’s self-help list, they have proved enduringly helpful to me. Through the years each one has become an old friend and trusted writing companion.
The Weekend Novelist lays out a plan for completing a novel (or memoir) in 52 weekends, a strategy the author used for writing his first book while teaching during the week. But whether you are a weekday or a weekend writer, this book is a guide in that it provides a blueprint to help you articulate and direct your creative energy. (I almost said “crazy creative energy,” but I don’t want to project here.) The author’s diagram for plotting using Aristotle’s incline is especially valuable. If nothing else it gives one side of your brain something to play with while the other side cogitates on possible story designs.
- Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee (mckeestory.com)
When I took Bob McKee’s screenwriting course years ago, the auditorium was packed not only with screenwriters, but with editors and writers of every genre. All of us wanted a better understanding of the principle and function of story. Bob McKee describes it this way:
“The source of all art is the human psyche’s need for the resolution of stress and discord through beauty and harmony…”
In my mind, any film or piece of writing that takes the mess of real life and shapes it into a story is a thing of beauty!
In Story, McKee elucidates the principles of story design, including “beats” which he defines as “an exchange of behavior in action/reaction. Beat by beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene.” Beats, McKee explains, build scenes, and scenes build sequences.
In my writing group, when one of us has written a scene that feels flat, it’s often because the scene is missing a beat or two. Slow down, and give each character a chance to react to an action, even it’s just a double-take.
Another helpful device McKee defines is “opening the gap” between expectation and result. To open the gap, ask yourself “What’s the opposite of that?” or “What’s off the wall from that?” Of course you can’t force this kind of reversal to happen in a true-life story, but you can recognize when it does. Here’s an example from my life:
“In my women’s consciousness-raising group, which was composed of students and newly-weds like myself who met at the back of the health food store, we talked about how to rewire men biologically so they wouldn’t be pigs. Love between a man and a woman was all bourgeois bullshit anyway. I stopped shaving my legs and threw away my bras.
“And then, right in the middle of my most militant man-hating phase, I fell in love with Eddie.”
(As you may have guessed, Eddie was not my new husband.) The gap was there, I just had to prune anything extraneous to the storyline to uncover it. And reflect; discovering the resonances and reversals embodied in the theme of your memoir requires much contemplation.
One last point – just because Bob McKee is talking about writing screenplays, doesn’t mean your story has to be big:
“Given the choice between trivial material brilliantly told versus profound material badly told, an audience will always choose the trivial told brilliantly.”
- To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction by Phillip Lopate (philliplopate.com)
My Pride and Prejudice and Kitties co-author, Debbie, summed this book up nicely:
“Bookstore shelves are stuffed with excellent books on fiction and screenplay writing, but for years I searched in vain for a similarly excellent book on nonfiction writing. Then in 2013 came Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell, and my search was over.
“Lopate covers all the issues: the need to turn yourself into a character, conflict in nonfiction, the ethics of writing about others, and on and on. His best bit of wisdom, though, is that the familiar “show don’t tell” dictum should not apply to essay and memoir; an essay should not read like a short story. ‘The story line or plot in nonfiction consists of the twists and turns of a thought process working itself out, he observes. For my money this is all you need to know!
“He also devotes an entire chapter to the importance of reflection in memoir. The memoir should have a double perspective, he says: one showing the experience as lived and one reflecting the wisdom of the author’s present self. “This second perspective, which takes advantage of a more mature intelligence to interpret the past, is not merely an obligation but a privilege and an opportunity.” –Deborah Guyol writingintothesunset.com and letsgowrite.com
- Your favorite memoir
Your favorite memoir is an invaluable blueprint, a map that you can study and return to as often as you like.
A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean is my own favorite*. This is not a book you can dissect easily; it is unique in language, structure and story, and eludes analysis. But I did consult it when I wanted to see how Maclean wrote so compellingly about the father’s reaction to the death of his son:
“After my brother’s death, my father never walked very well again. He had to struggle to lift his feet, and, when he did get them up they came down slightly out of control.”
The words are simple, matter-of-fact. But the impact of the image is devastating, and much stronger than if Maclean had written, “my father became hysterical and threw himself on the floor yelling and pounding his fists.” Or even “my father was shattered.” We see that vividly in the image of his father’s stumbling.
- How to Write a Movie in 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method by Viki King.
Like The Weekend Novelist, Viki King’s book provides a structure and schedule for getting the writing done. But what I found most helpful is the concept of a “logline” – “your story reduced to an ad copy blurb that tells what your movie is about and makes us want to see it.”
I know, that sounds crude and commercial. Who wants to reduce her memoir to a logline? Who can? (Try it; it’s really hard!) But if you can do this before you write your first draft, the logline will help you define the parameters of your story, and prevent you from getting seduced by your own words – in other words, lost (unless that’s your process, but that’s a subject for another post).
When I was beginning a young-adult thriller based on Snow White, I came up with the logline “She can’t find peace of mind, until her step-daughter rests in peace.” I love that logline! (I never wrote the book, but I can’t help wishing there were a market for loglines.)
A cross-pollination of writing advice – i.e., seeking wisdom in different genres – can be highly productive. A book on screenwriting can help you see your memoir more clearly, especially if you are a visual writer. Your favorite memoir is a treasure map if you spend the time to decipher it. But the best resource is yourself – your passion and resolve to tell a story only you can tell in a way only you can tell it.
*Though heavily autobiographical, A River Runs Through It is classified as a novel because Maclean altered the timeline and details of his brother’s death.
A version of this piece was posted on womensmemoirs