Memoir Writing Lesson from Fiction

Fiction can offer powerful insights for memoir writers. I just began reading a classic historical novel, Divine Average, first published in 1952 by Elith Hamilton Kirkland. Like many novels, it’s written in memoir format, in this case an end-of-life memoir. It’s set in 1838-1858 in “that period of Texas history when ‘cow boy’ was a phrase with a controversial meaning and ‘Texians’ a nationality.

The second paragraph stopped me in my tracks:
I feel compelled at this time by the Spirit of the Holy Mother and the force of God to leave an account of the things that have happened to me and mine. It all lies on my heart like a confession that must be made before I can die in peace . . . a confession not only for myself, but for my husband, Range Templeton, who despises me now after loving me for twenty years, for my daughter Laska, lost to us and to herself, a companion to outlaws in the wilds of Mexico, and for my son, Luke Templeton, so bold of mind and pure in heart.
I know right away that Luvisa Templeton, “a consumptive, soon to die,” is confessing all for peaceful death, which she’s looking forward to “as deliverance.” This compelling reason to write creates a compelling reason to read. What juicy secrets is she about to divulge? What better way to hook my attention?

She immediately goes on to explain her time frame – the twenty years of her marriage to Rage Templeton – and her frustration at never being able to understand him. That sounds like a rich topic.

She then explains that she’s not penning this tome herself. She’s dictating it all to Mr. Bryson, a “very close friend to every member of the Templeton family,” which relationship she’ll explain in due course. Bryson is literate, articulate, better able than she to find the right words for her thoughts and feelings. Bryson has promised to place the completed manuscript “in the proper hands with instructions that it be preserved until such time as it might seem fitting to give it out for reading, in a book perhaps.” She continues:
Is it too much to hope that in some future generation these events may stir the minds and warm the hearts of men and women destined to know more and see further than those of us here now? Perhaps I attach too much importance to the life I have lived and the lives of which my living has played a part. But I yield completely to the compulsion that I must leave such a documentation. 
Like Luvisa, many of us write because we’re compelled to do so. In heeding that compulsion, we’ll do well to follow her fictitious example on several counts:

  • Be clear about why you are writing and
  • Who you are writing for.
  • Be clear about the frame for your story, in her case a twenty year marriage and
  • The story focus or theme, in her case what happened to her and hers. 
  • Have a strong, compelling opening. 
  • Get the tension/conflict going right away, in her case her husband who loved her for twenty years despises her now. Why? How did her daughter come to be in Mexico with outlaws?
  • Seek help when you need it. Luvisa used Mr. Bryson, a sort of ghost writer. You may choose to use an editor, beta readers, reading groups, friends, even family to help you on your way. 
  • Have a strong, compelling opening. 
  • Postpone distribution if you feel it unwise to disclose it all now. 

Points to Ponder: Do you have a story you’re compelled to tell? Can you identify the frame and focus? What help might you need to get it written? 


kathleen pooler said...

Sharon, disclosure is a huge issue for memoir writers. To me the most important question to answer is "why am I writing this book?" If you can be clear on the answer to this question, it will power you through all the doubts and naysayers. Of course, it is always wise to weigh the risks and benefits of disclosing advice may be in order. The tips are great reminders for all of us. Thanks for sharing. It's great to have you"back".

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for adding that question to the list Kathy. I totally agree that's a primary key. The list I made is definitely not inclusive. The items on it are secondary to your big WHY?

And thanks for the reminder of weighing the risks of disclosure. I recently wrote about Carol, who chose to limit distribution of her book to family rather than listing it on Amazon for the general public, and she made that decision to avoid potentially disastrous consequences.