Writing Memoir: Essay by Essay

Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash
Should you begin writing a memoir as a book-length story, or essay by essay?

After my first memoir was published as a Kindle Single, I reflected a bit about how I wrote it. Originally, that memoir was about my time as a teenage runaway and abuse survivor plus my time as a trial attorney representing a woman who’d survived being shot in the head. First, it was chronological; later, it was braided, alternating between deep past and more recent past.

An Amazon editor saw an essay I’d published in Guernica about my birth family. She asked me if I had anything longer. I sent her the teenage runaway/shooting manuscript. She felt the teenage runaway story was more dramatic than the shot-in-the-head story. Go figure.

She encouraged me to send her a draft of only that story. So, of course, I did.

It had taken me about five years to write that memoir. While that manuscript moved through the editing and publication process, I started imagining a quicker process for writing a full-length memoir about reuniting with my very colorful family. Maybe, I thought, it would be faster to do it in two steps.

First, write individual essays, get them published, and second, slap them together into a book-length memoir. An added benefit of this method was getting pieces of the memoir out in the world right away. Agents and editors like to bet on known quantities — writers who’ve already been published — and I wanted this next memoir published, too.

I was successful with step one; a dozen of those essays have been published in venues including The RumpusNarratively, and Sycamore Review. The very first one to be published found a home three years ago  on Medium in the original incarnation of Human Parts.

But uh-oh. Guess what? It’s been way harder than I thought it would be to mash those essays together into a coherent story. What’s missing is continuity, the glue that holds a story together. But more importantly, in writing those essays, I hadn’t even begun to think about stuff like narrative arc and character development and overarching themes in a book-length story.

If that sounds like a fiction writer’s talk, well, I admit it is. Great memoirs, those that grab a reader and won’t let go, are written like great fiction. IMHO, of course. They focus on story.

Call me a traditionalist: I like a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’ve read some wonderful essay collections, like Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, that have more than a hint of memoir about them. But I could pick that book up, and put it down, and pick it up again months later.

For me, the most enjoyable reading experiences are the ones that immerse me in a different world with a conflict that begins on page one, gets complicated as I fly through the pages, and comes to a satisfying (or maybe shocking) conclusion near the end.

Now, I’ve got just over 75,000 words of that second memoir written, and I’ve taken a vow to complete the first draft of the whole shooting match by the end of this May. As part of that goal, I plan to blog here every day about some element of memoir craft — especially those elements I need to master.

For me, writing a memoir step by step, one essay at a time, may not have been the time-saver I hoped for. But for other writers, the process has worked quite well, and it might work for you.

We writers are all different, but all writers benefit from knowing their options.

If you’re interested in a thorough discussion of memoir development options and a detailed, diverse analyses of distinctions between essay and memoir and story, I recommend Colin Hosten’s article that includes interviews with some of the top writers and editors in the field.

Write on.

3 thoughts on “Writing Memoir: Essay by Essay

  1. Perfect timing to come across this, as I have been pecking at drafting my own memoir for awhile and while I’m getting closer to figuring it out, still unsure quite how to format it. It’s good to read other similar trains of thought and experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

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