Writing Memoir: Self as Character

Photo by Grace Madeline on Unsplash
Why should you write about yourself as if you’re a character in a story?

Memoir is story, it just happens to be a story that’s true. And one thing that’s easy to forget when writing memoir is that your readers want to get to know you. And to them, you’re a character.

Just as in real life, that getting-to-know you happens gradually, through what you wear, where you hang out, what you say, where you work, who your friends and family are.

In any story, we expect main characters to grow and change. Readers want to know who you are when the story begins, who you become when the story’s conflicts arise, and who you are when the story ends.

Readers want to know who you are when the story begins, who you become when the story’s conflicts arise, and who you are when the story ends.

Currently, I’m reading Chuck Wendig’s craft book Damn Fine Story. It’s stuffed with clear and practical advice for writing stories that sweep readers off their feet and glue them into the comfy chair, or bed, or where ever the reader prefers to read.

Wendig is primarily a novelist and screenplay writer. So far, I haven’t seen him mention memoir, but IMHO, advice about writing stories (and that’s his focus) apply to memoir as well as fiction. I anticipate quoting from him often in this series about writing memoir.

Anyways, here are some points he makes about character development:

  • Characters are their problems. For example, in my adoption reunion story, my problem is that I don’t know where I came from.
  • Characters face internal and external complications. We’re talking about conflicts. In my story, my internal resistance to dependence on others was further complicated by my birth family’s external expectation that I would depend on them for love.
  • Characters create a story by interrupting the baseline, the status quo.Every story begins with a static situation and goes from there. Even if the original static situation is chaotic, it’s still the baseline from which the story begins. No interruption in the baseline = no story.
  • The best characters end a story changed. And isn’t that what memoir is about? How we, the writers, have been changed by a particular series of events?

So how do you turn yourself into a character? One way is to imagine readers are meeting you for the first time. Show them a picture (in words) of the person you are at the beginning of your story, and use plenty of concrete, sensory details. Here’s a current paragraph from my memoir draft that tries to do that work:

To ease my anxiety at the prospect of meeting my family for the first time, I’d spent the twenty-two-hour train ride from Boston to Savannah reviewing case files from my law practice. Born in the South, but adopted into a family from the North, I spent my childhood feeling as if I were wearing a flour sack when everyone around me was in silk. My adoptive father was fond of calling me an “enigma,” a word I had to look up the first time he said it, when I was a twelve-year-old drug user toting around a worn copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The nineteenth-century novels a librarian had recommended to me did as much for my sense of well-being as the Librium my pediatrician prescribed when I rebelled against my parents, and the codeine-heavy cough syrup I started drinking directly from the bottle at age nine.

The bold-faced words are, of course, those sensory details. The reader will know I’m a lawyer, I’m willing to take a long train ride, and as a twelve-year-old child, I was a bookworm and a drug user. But, I notice, there’s nothing in this paragraph that says what I look like.

Straight physical descriptions (I was short, plump, and had dark hair) can sound forced, or boring, or both. Some writers think that physical descriptions are unnecessary for main characters because readers like to visualize them on their own.

But if I tie a physical description of myself to an action or emotion, that might work. Let’s see.

Anxious at the prospect of meeting my family for the first time, I’d twisted a section of my dark brown hair around one finger until it formed a spiral curl. To distract myself, I spent much of the twenty-two-hour train ride from Boston to Savannah reviewing case files from my law practice. Balancing a folder on my ample lap, I paged through it with my skinny little chicken fingers.

Better? Maybe so. Let me know if you feel so inclined. Here’s an example from a better writer, Marilynne Robinson, from her novel Housekeeping.

… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.

Notice how each characteristic is paired with a verb and given an action.

Ways other than action to describe yourself as a character are:

  • Let other characters describe you. “Her friend turned to me and said ‘Your sister says you’re bizarre, but your brother-in-law says you’re merely eccentric.’”
  • Describe objects near and dear to yourself. “I held my teddy bear, which I’d received on my first birthday.”

Any other ideas?

Write on.

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