Writing a memoir: Intersecting memory and story

Writing a memoir is one of the most stimulating but difficult literary challenges an author can undertake. Nevertheless, it’s a hugely popular genre. Five of the top ten hardcover nonfiction books on the NY Times bestseller list this week are memoirs.

Aspiring memoir writers can find help in books and by searching online, but there’s nothing like a live workshop with a master teacher.

One highly recommended instructor is Tamim Ansary, the Afghan-American author of the critically acclaimed literary memoir West of Kabul, East of New York (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This spring, Ansary will be conducting a six-week memoir workshop in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I jumped at the opportunity to ask him about his views on writing and teaching this subject.

What is a memoir and how is it different from a personal journal or novel based on your life?

A memoir is the intersection between memory and story. Both sides of that equation—memory and story–are equally vital.  When you decide to write a memoir, you’re asserting that the story is already there. It’s in the facts. Your mission is to discover the story, not create it. The story is not something you add but something you reveal through the facts. Making your story visible becomes a process of discovering what your story really is.

A novel, in contrast, may be based on real-life events, but story trumps all.   As a writer, you are not only free to alter or invent whatever is necessary to make the story better, but you must: that’s your job. If something in a novel doesn’t work, the novelist can never fall back on the plea that “But that really happened.”

A journal is a direct transliteration of experience into words. It’s essentially a conversation with yourself whereas a memoir is—inherently—a conversation with others. When you undertake to write one of these, you’ve already decided to make your private story visible to people who don’t even know you.

Writing a memoir, therefore, invites you to get outside yourself, to achieve a certain objectivity about your subjectivity.

How can one prepare for writing a memoir? What kind of planning and research do you recommend?

The process of creating a memoir begins with paying attention to your own urge to “tell the story of…” The subject won’t be ‘My Life: A chronological account of everything that’s happened.” It’ll be something more confined, more thematic: “My terrible divorce” or “The strange year we spent in Arkansas” or “Fighting for the liberation of Bangladesh” or “Oh those raucous sixties” or … whatever. You want to open the tap and let your memories run.

Your quest is to squelch interference from the narrative you have in mind: to not write what you think happened, but to sink into the primeval cauldron at a desk with your fingers on a keyboard, turning what you relive into words, with as much attention as possible to the memories and as little as possible to the words. Later, there may be good reason, and much benefit to be gained from looking into more standard “research and source material”—letters, old diaries, newspaper reports, whatever.

How can you create drama, suspense and humor in a memoir?

As you produce the data dump of memories, you’ll want at some point to start on the “actual” memoir. Now your quest is to organize the shape buried in the detritus of events and details you’ve recorded. What is the heart of it? Where does it begin? What is the dramatic rise?  How does it resolve? What is it all about? There are countless ways to go about all this. You can make an outline and start writing from it. You can start writing without an outline, just let your instincts guide you. You can take that shapeless draft you’ve produced, all those pages of babble, and find the nuggets in there (there’ll be some; never fear), extract them, set them in order, and see what you’ve got.

Whatever your method, your quest now is to make the buried pattern visible, get the story-like elements to emerge. At which you’re in a zone much like the one inhabited by novelists:  you’re using all those tools to build drama, suspense, humor—it’s all about what you juxtapose, how you build, and what you build toward.

How do you recommend handling personal revelations, considering the potential for hurt feelings or even legal action?

There are some things you just can’t write about. If you’re writing a memoir about how you stole secrets from the CIA, you might be prosecuted. If you’re worried about being sued, you can alter stuff about people—what they look like, what they do for a living, where they come from, their cultural and ethnic background to the point that they won’t be able to claim in court that you wrote about them.

As for hurt feelings, my first recommendation is: Don’t think about it while you’re writing. Achieve authenticity first—for your own sake; for the sake of literature and art; for the sake of truth. Once you’ve drafted the whole, you still have a long path ahead of you, revising, reshaping, and editing it. This is to time to decide what to change, if you want to avoid hurting people you know.

The simplest and most superficial things of course are names, but if your memoir is fully realized and authentic, the people in it will recognize themselves. If they don’t, you might have fallen short in your writing. Therefore, you have to be sure what you say is crucial to your story, and also that you say exactly what you mean. The worst thing is to hurt someone’s feelings when you didn’t even say what you meant to say or didn’t express it the way you would have wanted to.

My other recommendation is to steel yourself: No matter what you say, some people will feel hurt, even when you’re saying nice things about them, because everyone is the hero of their own life story, and what they’ll see in yours is themselves as a side character or a member of the supporting cast.

You’ve written several memoirs. What was that like for you?

The first one, West of Kabul, East of New York, was like being at a party where all the guests are me. The third one is Road Trip, just completed, a long, arduous, and addictive process of understanding and reassessing what it all meant—not just my own life but the times I lived in and the historical experience of which I was a part. In between those two, I wrote someone else’s memoir: The Other Side of the Sky, about/for Farah Ahmadi, an Afghan girl who fell victim to a landmine. In that case, I spent five days with her, recorded our conversations continuously, then transcribed the interviews and in the course of transcription (and translation since we had conversed in Farsi) the dramatic shape of her story emerged for me; and then I started writing. It was very like the process I described above except with conversation taking the place of remembering.

I also acted as midwife for a number of other memoirs when I did a project with young Afghan American writers resulting in an anthology of short pieces called This Afghan American Life. What struck me working with the young writers was how often the writers began with some “official” sense of their story and then, in the course of being pushed for more, they would break through some wall and suddenly discover the real story (and man, those were powerful sometimes.)

Can you recommend some memoirs for our readers?

To Have Not by Frances Lefkowitz. It’s billed as a memoir about coping with a lifetime of feeling poor, and it is that; but it could also be seen as a memoir about a life like any other: a demonstration of the fact that every life, once you get down to the particulars, is laden with tension, drama, heartbreak, elation, suspense—all the stuff of story, great story. Another is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale. And of course Diary of Anne Frank. Oh, and let me not forget to applaud This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff.

__________________

Tamim Ansary, the son of a Pashtun Afghan father and Finnish-American mother, grew up near Kabul until the early 1960s, when he left to attend an American high school, eventually going on to Reed College in Oregon. In addition to the memoirs mentioned in this post, his books include Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes and The Widow’s Husband, an historical novel.

What about you?

Have you written a memoir, or have one in progress?  If so, what are some of the special challenges you’ve faced at the intersection of memory and story?  Do Ansary’s words resonate with you?  Feel free to comment here, and I’ll watch for any questions.

27 Responses to Writing a memoir: Intersecting memory and story

  1. Ceejae Devine

    Mr. Rinzler,

    I took a different approach to writing memoir and I’m not sure what to do with it. Since there was a lot of sensitive and some of what I expect to be controversial material, I wrote a collection of short stories. Some are based on experiences, some are based on the growth of my beliefs. The range wildly in subject matter, but I corralled them into progressive sections. I am concerned that the age range is too disparate, so I thought I might develop smaller mini-collections and put them out into the world via Smashwords. The subject matter focuses on women’s issues and main themes are love, sex, fear, religion and God. I am wondering if I am “giving away” all the subject matter that I could use to write novels and may hold back some of them and try one mini-collection and see how it goes. I like writing short stories but not sure how to reach my target audience, which is what is now being called New Adult or 18-30, since it seems like most of what is popular now for that age group is fantasy. I describe my work as being as frank as Dr. Ruth, as approachable as Dave Barry, and it seems to alternate between channeling Issac Asimov and George Carlin. Obviously this is a lot to process, but I would appreciate any recommendations.

  2. Alan Rinzler

    Ceejae,

    I’ve worked with authors who’ve written their memoir as collected short stories, so yes, that can be a successful approach. Memoirs, moreover, often include delicate or contentious elements since they’re about the real world.

    My recommendation, therefore, is don’t worry about your target audience preferring fantasy, that’s an obsolete generality, or about using up your material. Just tell a strong and true story that reader’s won’t want to put down. Later, you can decide whether you want to an expand or convert these non-fiction memoir stories to fictional short stories or novels.

  3. L. M. Quinn

    Mr. Rnizler,

    I’ve a story to tell (a family secret). I tried writing a few chapters as both a novel and memoir but couldn’t see anyone turning the pages to end of the book. I then recalled that I’d learned of this secret as a child. I’ve just finished a complete ms draft of my YA novel. This genre worked best for me. Perhaps it might work for some of your readers as well.

  4. Ceejae Devine

    Mr. Rinzler,

    I have a “bad” habit of rereading my posts and just counted at least three typos, so my apologies. :–)

    Thank you very much for the reply. It is immensely helpful.

    I see that you offer presentations in the Port Townsend area. I am in the Seattle vicinity and would greatly appreciate being on a mailing list for future opportunities.

    Best regards,
    Ceejae Devine

  5. Dawn Pier

    Hello Alan,
    Mr. Ansary’s advice to “not write what you think happened, but to sink into the primeval cauldron at a desk with your fingers on a keyboard, turning what you relive into words, with as much attention as possible to the memories and as little as possible to the words” made me smile at his beautiful metaphor and at the near impossibility of following his instruction! It is so hard not to get caught up in the “words” and to become overwhelmed by the process of dredging up the past and distilling it into something readable. Early on in the first draft of my memoir, I constantly found myself getting bogged down by the overwhelming amount of “history” I needed to sieve through. What I learned from my own process and from Linda Joy Myers, is that if I write “where the heat is” (Linda Joy’s words) the real “story” begins to unfold. I may have set out with all sorts of intentions of where this book was going to go and what it was going to be about, but a couple of years and many 10s of thousands of words later, I am just now beginning to see what the real story (or theme) is. In turn that is making the process of writing more exciting. I’m finally reinvigorated to get moving on this and get a first draft done.

    I’d also agree that Frances Lefkowitz’s To Have Not is a lovely memoir of a rather ordinary childhood eloquently conveyed. We indeed do all have stories to share that readers will want to read.

  6. Alan Rinzler

    Dawn,

    Tamim’s metaphor encourages a writer to free associate memories, relive the events that come to mind, and only then begin to focus the story as it gradually emerges.

    I’m glad you found this useful and also that you found the “heat” that Linda Meyer wrote about in her excellent book, The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story. By coincidence, I edited and published that book at Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

    Good luck with your first draft!

  7. Carmen Ambrosio

    Mr. Rinzler:

    Thank you for sharing your interview with Mr. Ansary. So many of his insights resonated with me.

    After I published my memoir, I lamented in an essay about writing to heal not delving deeper into my past. But, as it was,”returning to 1991 (the year I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis six months after my father died) felt like digging into blue ice and marrow”. Perhaps, someday I will escavate more.

    I find your blog posts very informative and thought-provoking.

  8. GTChristie

    I loved the succinctness and clarity of his answer to the first question. Distinguishing among the three forms (fiction story, journal, memoir) seems an obvious step, but it’s essential. If it helps even one writer answer the question “what am I writing here?” then this interview is worth its weight in electronic ink.

  9. Of Memory and Story | getWrite!

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  10. Debra Badgwell

    Mr. Rinzler,
    This may be a bold statement but I am a virgin to the world of new book authors, so new in fact this is the first time I’ve gone public on any level about my venture or to do such a thing as commenting. Finding your site feels like I found a rare artifact out walking on a trail. What I have just read here of Intersecting Between Memory and Story is exactly the best reading I could have come upon. I am so glad to have found you.
    When I began my 1st journal approaching 3 years ago I had no clue where it was going to lead. Within the 1st year yes I knew it should grow up to be a book. I relate so heavily to your blog today seeing my journey follow the advise and suggestions without knowing it was what I was working up to. Until today I couldn’t say for sure what genre or what to label my work as. It is my life and my story but I’m at the point of taking over 6 journals of pouring my story out as you said without worrying about the words, to now find the true story I will extract out of it. You have given my speculations ground to anchor on. Thank you Mr. Rinzler for showing up today in my search. I finally know that my book will be a memior.
    Knowing that I am just finding my way and just embarking on something bigger than I’ve ever known I would love to hear what you have to say.

  11. Extra Frisky

    This article is very helpful. I am, of course, writing my memoirs which brought me to this blog. You addressed some of my concerns, suits, hurt feelings, organization.

    I’d say my current challenge is to make sure I am entertaining and not narcissistic. I have no shortage of entertaining and beyond the ordinary rich experiences (which is why people keep telling me to write my memoirs). To stay motivated, I started my blog http://www.extrafrisky.com and joined a writing group. I am doing part one and part two. Pre sanity (birth to nursing school) and medical insanity but life sanity (nursing school and beyond). Makes it much easier!

    Forcibly retired 59 year old RN here, my budget is temporarily limited so writing conferences are on hold (unless I am honored a scholarship).

    Thank you again for to the point advice.

  12. Becky Povich

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post, especially the opening sentence. It’s always reaffirming to read that memoir writing is very difficult. It took me a long time to complete mine and I felt so inadequate when I’d hear about people whipping out their novels within weeks! (Although I have no idea if those novels were any good or not!)Thank you very much for this insightful interview!

  13. Alan Rinzler

    Dawn,

    Tamim sent this response to your comment, and we can all learn from it:

    You refer to “dredging up the past” and “distilling it into something readable” as if they are a single activity. To me, a writer needs to separate these processes and give each one its own compass.

    I am in complete agreement with Myers that writing a memoir involves “writing where the heat is”—but how is that done? It isn’t simply a matter of deciding where the heat is and going there. It isn’t that simple because “moving-toward-the-heat” involves the instinctual and emotional aspects of the brain; “deciding” involves the rational and analytical aspect.

    I find that if, as I’m going into memories, I’m also distilling-them-into-something readable, one process interferes with the first. (And it’s usually the rational mind squelching the emotional one.) I think the challenge is to give your instinctual engagement with your story its head at first: just let go, release the hounds, follow them where they go sniffing and snuffling. Keep the mental supervisor out of the game–for now.

    Once you’ve been through the first part of the process, and you’ve generated pages and pages, you have something you can look at; now you can let the deciding part of your brain take over. Most of what you have written will probably be, um, crap. In my experience, writing a whole lot of crap is the price one pays for getting to that state where one is on fire and writing like an angel–and that’s the state you want to get into.

    If you do this part well, when you look at the words you’ve generated, you will find nuggets among the jumble; passages the angel wrote. Even these passages won’t be ready to show to the public. They merely provide a place to begin.

    You can now let the other writer take charge, the one who thinks about structure and language. You can be that writer at this point because that writer needs something that exists in the objective world to work with—and you now have all those pages you produced in stage one. Those pages enable you to stand outside your own story where your audience will be.

    Believe me, I never meant to imply that one sits down at a keyboard and pours out a finished memoir. What I described is only one part of a long process. In fact, in some ways, even stage two is only the beginning. But that’s a conversation for another time.

    Tamim Ansary

  14. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    Memoirs do not always have to be in the form of a novel. I did a piece for IMPACT, an anthology journal published in book form. It contained a short but poignant series of events about three painful incidents involving me and my mother. All of it was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I titled the short memoir: OPEN LETTER TO MY DEAD MOTHER (300 words). Its brevity added to the effect I was “shooting” for: realistic honesty.

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  17. Gisela Hausmann

    My biggest challenge was that my biography was not supposed to be only a biography. As a “concept-person” and multitasker I wanted to add an additional benefit for the reader. Eventually, I turned my not completely linear biography into a life skills book with 41 stories. Forty of these forty-one stories are grouped into ten sections about the grander topics in life: love, money, professional… Each story contains a trick and/or skills is packaged into an entertaining short story of no more than six pages. I wonder how you like this “10 x 4″ concept, so far I haven’t seen any biography of this style. Thank you, Gisela Hausmann

  18. Alan Rinzler

    Gisela,

    Your unusual concept sounds interesting but the success of the book will depend, as always, on writing an engaging story that compels readers to care about your heroine and what happens to her, while at the same time inspiring them with the originality and utility of your life skill techniques.

    Ambitious and worthy, so good luck with this. Alan

  19. Jules Alp

    Dear Mr. Rinzler,

    What advice, if any, can you give to someone who believes they must use a pen name as the author of a memoir? I am aware it can/will cause serious problems related to the author’s platform, among other issues.

    I would be immensely grateful for any information & opinions you can share on this topic.

    Jules

  20. Alan Rinzler

    Jules,

    If you absolutely must write under a pen name, use it also as a nom de plume for online social networking. Find out if it’s possible to create a new email account, avoid any visual representations (YouTube or others) that could be identifiable to sustain a level of discretion that keeps your true identity unknown. You can even play on the pen name itself in your marketing and publicity. I wouldn’t recommend, however, creating a fictional identity, just anonymity.

    Why, however, must you use a pen name? If it’s for legal reasons, better check with an attorney to make sure you’re not invading privacy or libeling anyone. Remember that people can sue you regardless of a pen name if they feel recognizable, damaged, angry, or just because they want to retaliate.

    Tricky business so be careful.

  21. Jules Alp

    Thank you so much for your counsel. And I will take care to ascertain the rights of all — especially those “characters” in my memoir. Since I’ve no idea exactly how to do that, I will pray for guidance. And…I will take your advice to consult an attorney.

    It’s so kind of you to be such a wonderful resource to us :)

    Jules

  22. Rosalinda Morgan

    Dear Mr. Rinzler,

    I just self-published my parents’ memoir about their courtship and their life during World War II but I categorized it as historical fiction. I changed all the names in the book. There is nothing derogatory in the novel. It is a very good read and historical. There were times when I wondered if I should’ve kept it as a memoir. After reading your post, I believe it is a memoir. I sent a copy to my mother in the Philippines who is still alive at 90 and she told me I missed something and she is writing them down. I’m thinking of doing a revision and call it a memoir. Shall I change the genre? I’ll be very grateful for your advice.

    Thanks for an enlightening post.
    Rosalinda

  23. Alan Rinzler

    Rosalinda,

    If you intend to honor your mother’s wishes and stick to the truth, you’re writing a non-fiction memoir. It’s difficult to write another person’s memoir, especially a mother who is still alive and has a point of view that’s definitely valid.

    I recommend either conforming to your mother’s wishes and revising the book, which will then be a memoir, or writing a different historical novel that is clearly not about her and your father.

    Good luck with this tricky situation.

  24. Rosalinda Morgan

    Dear Mr. Rinzler,

    Thanks so much for you advice. I will do a revision after I receive all the new material from my mother. The book was originally written just for the family but I was advised by some friends to publish it.

    Thanks again for your sound advice.

    Rosalinda

  25. Wahoo

    Mr. Rinzler,
    After reading your article, I realize that I am in the process of writing a memoir about my wife’s affair and our recovery from it (not sure if I will ever publish it). I have access to all of the emails that she sent and received from the other man. Can I weave some of these emails verbatim into my story? or are there legal issues involved. Also, I’m assuming that I would need to change the name of the other man (even though the story is true) again to avoid any legal issues?

    Thank you.

  26. Humera Ahsanullah

    Dear Alan Rinzler,

    It is indeed a great help to find your page while searching through on the web. Thank you!

    Just like Dawn, I am a sophomore in the school of writing. First book published with penguin group was on Islamic issues where I postulated solutions to those issues. Difficult subject but I found it easy once I was able to gather much knowledge on the subject matter. But my second book, which I thought would be easy is much difficult to write: I wish to write about a ‘woman of substance’, the memoirs of my mother who passed away yesterday, I met her just a month ago when she was on her death bed but had gallantly survived until yesterday. I had intended to write her memoirs since 2010 when first time I saw this Knight succumb to her illnesses. She and I (one of her child among the ten) have shared together many stories of the past but many of her story pages are still missing with me. I intend to interview all those associated with her since childhood till now, in the hope, of finding some interesting aspects of her life changing events ( the missing pages). I then wish to pen them as her memoirs. I wanted to ask if I can do that as she is not there to verify the veracity of the narrators?
    Much thanks in advance for your reply.
    Humera Ahsanullah

  27. Alan Rinzler

    Humera,

    If you write a memoir (as opposed to a biography) of someone who isn’t actually you, whether it’s your mother or anyone else, it is a work of fiction. Such a book can’t be written without creative invention. There is no obligation to be 100 percent accurate about anyone in it.

    Your concern, therefore, is to honor the admirable life of a character based on your mother but necessarily somewhat fictionalized since you’re not her.

    If any of the people in the book are recognizable to themselves or any other reader, you’ll need to research potential legal problems by consulting an attorney, as I cannot offer any legal advice.

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