Writing Memoir: What to Leave in, What to Leave Out

Photo of 5 boxes by Leone Venter on Unsplash

Yes, that line is borrowed from a Bob Seger song.

In writing memoir, one of the critical challenges is deciding what to leave out. I’ll use my current memoir project as an example. It’s about reuniting with my birth family, and how building relationships with them, especially my nieces, changed my identity.

A subplot of the identity theme is the question of who my father is. In trying to find that out, my half-sister, my aunt and I all spat in our own little tubes for a DNA test. A surprise result of that test was that my sister and I both had some African-American heritage.

If I stray from the paternity issue and include that information about race in the memoir, that opens up a whole new set of issues. My mother’s dark skin, her racism, her husband’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan, the true identity of her father, my siblings’ participation in forced integration in the South in the 1970’s, the diverse attitudes about race among my siblings, and on and on and on.

Oy. Every time I’m sure it’s best to leave the race issue out, I think of a reason why I should include it. If I don’t disclose it, I’m suppressing the truth that many American white people have African ancestors. If I don’t disclose it, I’m white-washing myself, “passing” as white as one or more of my ancestors must have done. If I don’t disclose it, I’m cheating the reader of another dimension of the story.

Opening a box often means opening another box.

Oy, oy, oy. I turned to Auntie Google for advice on what to leave in and what to leave out. Most of what I found was some variation on “leave out anything that doesn’t further your theme.”

Oy, oy, oy, oy, oy. Now I have to figure out what my memoir’s theme is.

Many memoirs have more than one theme, but if so, they are usually connected in some way. The main theme of my project is “Blood will out”: meeting my family in my thirties opened up greater understanding of my own identity. It also taught me a lot about family identity and family connections.

[Side note: themes are often clichés. That’s not a bad thing. A cliché gets to be cliché by being repeated — because it has some universal truth to it.]

If the memoir’s theme is about identity, then it seems I should cover all aspects of the DNA test, maybe even the Facebook chat I had today with one of my nieces about how her parents disapprove of her Honduran boyfriend, or her just-barely-teenage son’s African-American girlfriend.

And that’s another problem — figuring out where to end. Because we’re a colorful bunch, my identity and my family’s identity keeps changing. But that seems like a topic for another blog post. Heaven help me.

Writing Memoir: Creating Suspense

A suspension bridge over a green forest. Photo by Cayetano Gil on Unsplash

Don’t you love it when you can’t stop reading because you must find out what happens?

Mysteries are propelled by this sort of suspense, of course, and in a great mystery (I recommend Tana French!), the suspense is expressed in more than just plot. It’s also expressed in character arcs.

A sense of mystery and suspense can also propel a memoir. In memoirs about surviving an illness, for example, the mystery to be solved can be the cause of the illness, or the efficacy of a cure. Often, the memoir’s central character also unravels an emotional or spiritual mystery.

I’m very invested in making my current memoir project readable, so I’m trying to be conscious of how I handle mystery and suspense. Although I’m sticking to the facts, of course, it’s up to me how I arrange those facts, and if and when I reveal the solution to the mysteries. But writing toward suspense has been challenging for me, partly because I’m inclined to put all my cards on the table at once. But to create suspense, we have to dole out information piece by piece.

In a Writer’s Digest article about the elements of suspense in fiction, Steven James writes:

Building apprehension in the minds of your readers is one of the most effective keys to engaging them early in your novel and keeping them flipping pages late into the night.

Simply put, if you don’t hook your readers, they won’t get into the story. If you don’t drive the story forward by making readers worry about your main character, they won’t have a reason to keep reading.

Making readers worry about characters? This might be another reason why it’s been so difficult for me to exploit the suspense related to me-as-character in my own story: I don’t like people to worry about me, maybe because it feels intrusive, or maybe (more likely) because it calls my competence and strength into question.

My memoir is about reuniting with my birth family, and one mystery is my father’s identity. My mother passed away before I could meet her, and she’d kept my existence to herself for the most part.

But clues popped up here and there as I got to know my family. The first story I heard was from an aunt who liked . . . to tell stories. She made up a very happy relationship for my teenage mother with a man she modeled after one of her favorite television actors.

But of course, I don’t tell the story that way — I let my aunt speak in dialogue, I let other family members have their say, I question the story, and ultimately I do my own research using the name my aunt gave me. All of this information is paced out over a number of chapters. Pacing is the key to giving readers the pleasure of discovery.

Later in the memoir, I come back to the daddy’s identity mystery when relating my experience with DNA testing. Again, the information is spaced out in order to make the mystery and the discovery more interesting for the reader.

In real life — and memoir is about real life — not all mysteries are solved, and those that are solved often turn out in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Now that I think of it, though, that’s often the case for mysteries in fiction. Maybe the line between real life and stories is even thinner than I thought.

Writing Memoir: The Arc of Grief

“A little figure toy sitting in front of a window on a rainy day in Indonesia” by Rhendi Rukmana on Unsplash
In fresh grief, writing can bring a sense of calm, and order, and even, for a time, a sense of closure. It can help us navigate different stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In the midst of fresh grief, or in the memory of grief, writing can be a way to move inward, and it can also be a way to come up for air.

Grief informs many memoirs, whether the writer is grieving the loss of a loved one, or the loss of health, or a lost innocence or a lost opportunity. In my current memoir project, the central grief is the loss of my mother, or, more accurately, the loss of the opportunity to meet my mother. We were separated by adoption when I was an infant, and she passed away just a year before I was able to find my family.

This past spring, the goal I set for myself was to finish a first-but-coherent draft of my memoir of reuniting with my birth family. It took an extra month for me to finish that draft, and the rest of the summer to revise it. It’s a bit over 80,000 words, most of which has been published as stand-alone essays.

My biggest challenge in combining these essays has been to locate the narrative arcs between the conflicts and the resolutions. Today, while working on revisions, I began to see the arc of my grief for my mother, which first cut into me when I learned I was adopted, and has never really ended.

Grief has an arc, but like most complex emotions, it often has more than one arc, and sometimes, one arc repeats in a story, over and over again. In writing about my family and how I fit with them, I learned that as each of my five brothers passed away, I relived all the regrets I had about not searching for my mother before she died. Those regrets, which began with my inaction or procrastination, sometimes resolved when I took a positive action. Sometimes they resolved in acceptance. And sometimes, a regret stuck, and didn’t resolve. These are all possible arcs.

But the main arc of my grief is my search for a ghost-woman who held me as a secret and who died young. I’ve found bits of her in the gestures and expressions I share with my siblings, in my own laughter, which they say mirrors hers, in the physical characteristics I see repeated in her grandchildren, and in our family’s legacy of addiction.

Will I ever find enough pieces of her to feel my search is complete? Probably not. I think this searching arc will keep repeating. Whenever I feel that I’ve found her, she slips away. Whenever I accept that we’ll never meet, I find myself denying that I ever missed her.

Maybe grief is an emotion that resists a narrative arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

I’m interested in your thoughts.

Writing Memoir: The practice of revising

“A fuzzy shot of a man’s hands on the keyboard of a piano” by Isaac Ibbotton Unsplash
Does genius make practice unnecessary? Do great writers do it right the first time, so they never have to do it again?

As a young woman in the 1980’s, I was a Boston Celtics fan. My favorite player was Dennis Johnson, who was known as a “money player,” a guy who came through when it really mattered. I admired how he could turn his talent on, seemingly at will.

But the most well-loved Celtics player from that era was probably Larry Bird, who combined unquestionable talent with a legendary work ethic.

Bird practiced methodically, taking as many as 500 shots from the foul line in a single practice session. In his mind, there was always room for improvement. Johnson, a gifted player, was not as methodical as Bird, but the two men worked so well together, they were likened to great musicians playing a duet.

It’s understandable that after the difficult work of getting a vision down on paper by writing the first draft of an essay or a short story or a poem, a writer wants to feel finished. We invest so much heart into our writing.

But first drafts are rarely the gems we think they are. If you’re like me, whatever you’ve most recently written is the best thing you’ve ever written. From talking with other writers, I know this is a common phenomenon.

To use the language of biology, the phenomenon seems adaptive: writers who adore the last thing they’ve written keep writing. Imagine if we thought the first thing we’d written was the best — we might despair of ever hitting that height again. We might give up.

Revision — a writer’s practice — is what keeps us striving to be better. By examining and re-examining our work, sharing it with other writers, and working to make our vision more and more accessible to readers, we keep feeding the flame.

I loved Dennis Johnson’s style and his heart and his drive to win. But in my writing life, I want to be more like Larry Bird: a methodical, believing that there’s always room for improvement.

Writing Memoir: Going on Retreat

Thanks to the generosity of my friend Corky who shared her house for the weekend, I went on a writing retreat with three friends. We all write poetry, and some of us write prose, too.

When we all arrived, we talked about our goals for the weekend, and then we set up a schedule for the day. It’s a good thing some of us are task-oriented, unlike me, the scatter-brain.

Today’s schedule started with private writing time for three hours on projects of our choice. After this, we came together to talk about how that went. Hearing everyone’s thoughts on what they’d accomplished helped me to see what I’d accomplished, and it helped us all to create another set of goals for the next round of writing later in the day.

Other activities in our schedule include reading poems aloud for inspiration, using a prompt to create lines for a collaborative poem, and a formal feedback session where we’ll share some work we produce here.

Writing retreats can be very productive times, especially for people working on particular projects, like a memoir. Without the distractions of my home, my garden, my husband, my dogs, I have no excuse not to write.

For some people, being in a beautiful place is inspiring. For others, it can be distracting. Corky is lucky to live on a small lake in North Central Florida, so the view is inspiring for me. I love North Florida more than I love jelly donuts. But because I live in this area too, it’s not so unfamiliar to me that I feel I have to get out and explore.

Writing retreats can take many forms. I’ve done the “staycation” retreat when my husband is out of town, hunkering down by myself in my home with a writing goal in mind. Those have not always been as successful as I’d hoped in terms of production. Those darn distractions. I know I’ve hit rock bottom when I find myself cleaning the bathroom instead of writing.

Writing retreats taken away from home can eliminate those distractions. One year, I went to a motel with my friend Sandra. We had separate rooms, and we got together for lunch and dinner, again to discuss our progress and goals. Having a time to meet with another writer gave me a sense of accountability.

Some of my writing friends have gone on retreats that are managed by writing teachers or coaches. These sometimes include workshops or seminars on particular topics. An example of that is the Iota conference retreat that focuses on very short nonfiction. It’s held in the beautiful downeast region of Maine.

Of course, you have to be able to afford those professionally managed retreats, or get a scholarship to attend one. If you can’t, going off with a few friends seems to be a good solution. You can have time to write, accountability, inspiration, and positive feedback and camaraderie.

Some elements of a successful group writing retreat include:

  • Private time for writing
  • Time for reading inspirational work, either in a group or individually
  • Using prompts to create new work
  • Formal feedback sessions to share work produced on the retreat
  • Comfortable accommodations, either at home or away
  • Accountability

Food and drink are required too, of course. If possible, it’s also helpful to have a mascot to bring good luck, or a familiar, or a spirit companion. We’ve been fortunate to be visited by these sandhill cranes.

Writing Memoir: Fact or Fiction?

A doll with a cracked face. Photo by Aimee Vogelsang on Unsplash
Do you remember the popular memoir, A Million Little Pieces? Written by James Frey, it was a national best seller. Then, it was revealed that Frey had made up many of the book’s juiciest parts.

The book became a literary sensation. Originally an Oprah’s Book Club selection, Oprah brough Frey back on her TV show where he confessed.

Today, the book is still listed as nonfiction in most libraries and bookstores, even though Frey and his publishers acknowledged that Frey fabricated numerous events in the book, including a criminal record. Admissions about the fabrications were included in subsequent editions of the book, which continued to sell well. Frey’s statement, in part:

“People cope with adversity in many different ways, ways that are deeply personal. […] My mistake […] is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience.”

Since then, the question of truth in memoir has been raised by readers, writers and publishers everywhere. Answers have varied.

For memoirists who strive for honesty, one issue has to do with composite characters. About ten years ago, I was in face-to-face writing group with other English faculty at a university in the Pacific Northwest region of America. One of the nonfiction pieces I brought to the group for critique ran for about 6,000 words, and 8 different people appeared in it. A colleague suggested that there were too many people in the story, and that I could combine several people into one character to avoid confusion. She called this creating a “composite character.”

I was astonished. I was writing nonfiction, and to me, the very definition of that was, well, non-fiction — true to life and not made up. But others in the group assured me that the emotional truth of the piece was truth enough, and that tweaking the facts a bit for ease of reading was okeedokee.

I knew, of course, that art, and writing, are not the same as real life, which bumbles along without any particular order. Art, and writing, require selection: we select scenes and images and dialogue from reality to include in our memoirs and essays, and we don’t select other scenes and images and dialogue.

There, in my opinion, is the problem with composite characters: in selecting material for our memoir and other nonfiction, we need to draw from the well of what really happened and who was really there.

But maybe I’m not as self-righteous when it comes to reproducing dialogue in memoir. I remember conversations, maybe not word for word, but I remember them. When I can’t recall exactly what someone said, I will, sometimes fill in the blanks.

Now I feel hypocritical.

Memory is not perfect, and different people will remember events differently, or not at all. As memoirists, we have to do our best to relate the truth as we remember it.

Where do you draw the line in your own nonfiction writing?

Writing Memoir: Starting Small

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

Lots of people start writing memoir as a book length project, but there are benefits to starting small with personal essays and “flash” memoir.

Essays are usually 2,000–8,000 words, while flash or micro-essays are under 2,000 words. The excellent online magazine Brevity, looks for flash nonfiction pieces (or “micro essays”) under 750 words.

One benefit to starting small is getting our work published quickly, whether on Medium or elsewhere. A book-length manuscript can take over a year, or more, to wend its way through a publisher’s many departments.

Having short pieces published can create an audience for our work, and it can help us become “known.” Book publishers and agents are often leery of “unknown” authors, and even when a writer appears to have sprung from nowhere on to a bestsellers list, that writer usually has a history of publishing short work.

In terms of craft, starting small can also be of benefit. It allows, or even forces us to focus on precise details and images. For folks who are unfamiliar with short nonfiction and micr-memoir, the aforementioned Brevity is a good place to get acquainted. Local libraries have anthologies of short creative nonfiction like In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction. These books will often provide observations about the genre and the craft, like this excerpt from In Short.

Zeroing in on a small moment is manageable in a way that a book length manuscript is not. But it also provides excellent practice for writing longer works, which also require attention to physical and emotional details.

In short (hahahaha), the small details can, or perhaps must, be interesting. That doesn’t necessarily mean pretty, although it certainly can. As an Asian history major in college, I came across this curse from Imperial China: May you live in interesting times. As in times of famine, flood, political upheaval, drought, and all the plagues suffered by the people of that vast country.

If you’ve read any of my personal essays, you know I and my family have had interesting lives, which has been both a blessing and a curse. Last year, I had a micro-memoir published (originally in Grist and then on Medium’s HumanParts) about a selfie posted by one of my beloved nieces.

As mentioned in another post, we like to get to know characters in fiction or memoir in the same way we get to know people in real life: by an accumulation of details.

My niece’s selfie included details that made me fear she was using drugs. Those details sent me back to her childhood when she had a scab below one eye that she picked at nervously. The scab looked like one of those teardrop tattoos you see on guys who’ve spent time in prison.

A scab is not a pretty detail, but in this situation it was interesting, and it revealed something about my niece’s character. The micro-memoir about the selfie and the scab doesn’t end happily. But a year after it was published, my niece read it aloud to her cohort as she graduated from a drug treatment program.

And that’s another benefit of starting small — kids these days! And adults. We’re all influenced by online interactions to read short works.

Write on. And read on, too.

Writing Memoir: Sending to Publishers

Woman wearing a t-shirt saying “SEND IT.” Photo by Drew Farwell on Unsplash

Submitting work to journals and contests and publishers (lions and tigers and bears) is one big pain in the butt. It’s also a time-tested way of opening yourself up for rejection. More on the rejection part later in this post.

Once your work is safe for human consumption, the first step is to locate journals or publishers or agents that are a good match for your work. For memoir excerpts and personal essays, my go-to spots for info are:

Another effective way to match your work with a publisher is to read widelyin your sub-genre. When you’ve read something you admire that’s got elements in common with your own work, consider submitting to that journal or magazine — or that agent. Writers will often thank their agents in the acknowledgements section of a book.

Following other writers and writing coaches who post about publication opportunities can also give you valuable information about where to submit your work. One of my favorite bloggers to follow is Erica Verrillo, who writes here on Medium.

Once you’ve found places to submit your work, then come the tasks like record-keeping and filling out online forms. What makes submitting easier? Two things come to my mind: a system and some sisters. Or brothers, colleagues, a network, whatever face-to-face or online communities appeal to you.

Some writers use Duotrope as a system to keep track of their submissions. Many of my writer friends use Duotrope and love it. I’m too cheap to pay the $5.00 per month fee. If you submit only to publishers who use Submittable, that can be a complete (and free) tracking system. And some writers use their own record-keeping systems.

New online communities for writers seem to pop up daily. I’m drawn to those that are created by and for women, like Women Who Submit on Twitter, which offers info on open submissions and “submission parties,” both F2F and virtual.

Other online communities exist on Facebook. Most are “closed groups,” which means you must request membership. This process helps to insure that all members are real people with an interest in writing. If you see a group that looks interesting, ask to join it. You can always leave a Facebook group if it doesn’t work out.

The rejection part: Kim Liao’s post about aiming for 100 rejections a year says it all, and says it so well that it went viral. The gist of Liao’s argument is that aiming for 100 rejections means you are sending your work out. And goals are important.

“Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”

Where do you go for information and strategies on sending out your work? Help us out here, so we can get back to the fun part — the writing.

Writing Memoir: Flashbacks and Braiding

Person standing still in front of a mural of a sneaker while cars zoom past. Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Real life happens chronologically, but memoirs and personal essays don’t have to. In fact, sometimes they shouldn’t if there’s some suspense or wisdom to be gained by juxtaposing events from various points in the past.

This technique is sometimes called using flashbacks. A more complex form of juxtaposing multiple times and threads is often called braiding.

Writers use several methods to alert readers to time changes in stories. The first involves simple signalling in phrases like “But ten years ago, I thought differently,” or “Two years before this event.”

A second method is to switch settings once you’ve already established a primary setting. An example might be found in a memoir about serving in the military in Vietnam. Whenever the writer flashes back to high school in America, we the readers will know that time has shifted too and that the high school is not in Vietnam.

Strong images or memorable characters associated with particular time periods can also serve as signals to the reader. A memoir that covers two marriages is one type of story that can use this technique, toggling back and forth between the two spouses or between two strong images like a granite fireplace in one marriage and a concrete swimming pool in another.

I’ve written a number of braided essays, and ironically that has made it difficult to compile them in my current memoir project, which is chronological. Maybe I should re-think that. But currently what I’m doing is chopping those essays up into their discrete times and threads in order to weave them back together in a chronological timeline.

One example of a braided essay that I’m currently chopping up is “Maternity Cave,” included in the March 2017 issue of Hippocampus. Like most of my publications, I worked on writing this piece for several years, and worked for even more years trying to figure out what the events in the story meant.

I don’t usually intend to braid different time periods, but it happens a lot. Every so often, a phrase or an image or a small event in daily life captures my attention as being connected to a phrase or image or event from the past. Those little a-ha moments are often the beginnings of my stories.

The maternity cave story begins in 2006 on a visit to a bat cave in Central Florida with my teenage niece Candi, where we saw thousands of little brown bats swirling up into the dusk, then it wiggles around in the 1990’s between my first marriage, my experience of infertility, and finding my birth family, and then it shoots ahead to a family picnic in 2016, when Candi is a grown woman with two children of her own. There was a moment at that picnic that lit up the past for me.

A bat hanging upside down in a cave. Photo credit http://www.hippocampusmagazine.com/2017/03/maternity-cave-by-michele-leavitt/
The story doesn’t follow linear time, and I’ve been thinking lately that’s one of the benefits of being a reader of personal essays: we get to experience hard-earned wisdom in a way that isn’t tied to chronology. We get to look back, be in the present, and jump ahead to the future in less time than it takes to bake a cake. There’s no undo or do-over button because truth doesn’t change, but at least we get to see truth’s trail.

Memoirs and personal essays are time capsules, freezing us in a series of moments. But they can be time machines, too, taking us forward and backward, allowing us to grab on to the hindsight and foresight in someone else’s experiences, even when that sort of wisdom escapes us in our own lives.