Tell Your Story
It’s simple advice, but not that easy to follow.
No, you didn’t misread the title. This isn’t some overly positive motivational speech to convince you to start writing. You know that’s not my style. I focus on creative ways for you to implement practical editing strategies.
Sure, on the surface this title looks like some seriously simplistic advice. It probably leaves you thinking, “of course, I’m going to tell my story when I write. Who else’s story would I tell?”
And if you’re writing memoir, the advice may seem even more obvious.
But if you think this advice is oh so easy, young grasshopper, I want you to take a second look. I’m kidding. I know you’re at least a mature cricket or seasoned caterpillar. But before you go buggy, ask yourself…
What does it really mean to tell your story?
If you read last week’s blog post, you noticed I mentioned a distinction in memoir writing. Unlike in fiction, in writing memoir you are actually three people in one. The writer. The narrator. The main character.
That’s a whole lot of perspectives rolled into you! All these different goal-oriented entities can confuse the heck outta your story direction unless you understand your role with each one.
Let’s have a closer look:
You, as the writer, sit on top of your story world with a God’s eye view. I’m envisioning a scene from City of Angels here. Remember that movie?
You see everything. You know what happened in real life and in real time. You know the aftermath and the consequences. And as far as writing the story, you’re the one identifying the bigger themes. You’re making choices about what plot points to use, and which ones to leave out. You can see far into the future of your characters.
Now, you, as the narrator, also have plenty of awareness about your story. But you are confined to that story. Unlike your writer self, you can’t ever close the book on you and go off to do yoga or take a walk. Your job as narrator is to keep the reader on track and to move us through your story in a way that gives us value.
Lastly there’s the you, as the main character. This you has the least amount of awareness, but she’s the most impacted by events. Things are happening to her. Think: this is the you when the events first occurred. You aren’t aware of what’s to come or what the bigger picture means. But within the story you have an advocate and a hero—you as narrator and you as writer. Those two can help make sense of your situation and pull you out of danger or at least make the danger mean something.
Look at that comedic starlet in our blog post’s image. Lucille Ball standing next to her real/TV show husband in I Love Lucy. The show was about a fictionalized Lucy and it was produced by Ball’s (and Arnaz’s) own company Desilu Productions.
But let’s consider the Lucy inside each episode. She was just a wife, right?
Her character was stuck within the TV series. The humor came from Lucy’s desperate ploys to get into her husband’s show, when the truth is, she was the show. We weren’t concerned with the director’s issues or what Lucille Ball faced as a producer. We only needed to be swept up in Lucy’s TV antics for us to laugh along.
When you tell your story in a memoir, you aren’t writing a play-by-play of events as they happened in real time. That’s a snorefest that a reader never wakes up from (because they close the damn book).
Arguably, the most creative part of memoir making is how you use time. How malleable is it in terms of relaying a theme to your readers? The plot and the characters matter, but it’s the message—that important take away—and how you reveal it, that’ll have your readers sticking around to discover the ending.
Nobody needs to write, “I woke up in the morning and I went directly to the bathroom. Then I brushed my upper front teeth for 47 seconds…” do you see where I’m going with this?
Truth in memoir writing is never 100% accurate. There is a creative sensibility to how you order events. Too much accuracy can spell disaster when it comes to dealing with time and subsequently the pacing of a story. So…
Pick it up.
Get us to the good stuff.
Cut out extraneous material that doesn’t add to your story’s plot.
Make every detail enhance the overall meaning.
You, the writer, may know everything that happened, but we little readers don’t need to know it all. Focus on becoming that strong narrative voice and pull the strings of the you who is your main character. You control her. She’s your puppet.
If you’re a spiritual person, you could even think of the narrative voice and the main character as the difference between your higher self and the you here on Earth. If your higher self is guiding you to your best destiny, think of the narrative voice as guiding your main character towards her biggest purpose.
The Writer You
This is you as a person who knows everything about your entire story in real life and real time. The person who can step away from the story.
The Narrator You
This is the entity who has the most awareness of the story within the confines of the book. But she can’t leave the page. She is the driving force for advancing meaning and giving your readers value.
The Main Character You
This is the entity that functions most like the old you, the you trapped inside your story. She is the least aware and has the most to learn.
When you write your first rough draft, you may feel like you’re reliving your previous experiences. This is because you’re identifying with the main character you only.
Don’t be afraid of this process.
As you continue to edit—and this is why editing is vital—you’ll begin to connect to the big picture more than the individual events. You’ll stop re-traumatizing yourself because you’ll see the story as fulfilling a bigger purpose. Essentially, you’ll integrate all three yous by identifying more with the narrator you and eventually the writer you.
The subject of identity brings us to another sticky issue within memoir writing—relationships.
I’m gonna take a guess here and say you aren’t the only character in your memoir. That means you’ll be introducing real people into your story.
The big question for a lot of memoir writers is where does my story end and my husband’s, mother’s, daughter’s, ex-husband’s, creepy boss’s story begin?
For the writer to be honest, she may have to reveal a fraction of another person’s story. This boundary can be tricky to maneuver.
Sometimes it’s unintentional. Like you can’t explore certain parts of your life without examining those moments with your not-so-nice ex-boyfriend. Or maybe you make conjectures about someone else’s behavior because you’re trying to empathize with them.
Other times, this happens when you think you’re writing a memoir, but really you’re attempting to write a relative’s story. Like “my grandmother who dressed herself as a man to enter the Navy for WWII was really interesting… she was born in 1925…”
The best rule of thumb is if you’re writing memoir, you better make sure you’re telling your own story.
Stick to your views, your perspective, how you interpreted a situation. Only reveal enough about another person’s story to enhance your own. And stop thinking you can tell another person’s story, even if your grandmother really was that amazing.
You can’t make your narrative about someone else. That defeats the purpose of a memoir.
The key to all this is you. You might not be famous, but you’re sharing a period of time in your life that held deep significance. That translates into real transformations for you and your readers if you get it right.
You’ll never be able to peer into someone else’s head and determine why they did that mean thing to you. You’ll never really know if that bitch cheerleader stuck fireworks in your cheer shorts because she wanted you off the team or because she was jealous. But you don’t need to know. And neither does your audience. All you know is what actually happened. The facts. The actions. As you saw them and how they caused you to react and change.
And if the events really happened, don’t worry about someone claiming libel. Save that concern for a legal team after you’ve written your story.
Focus on writing your story. Don’t make conjectures that the cheerleader probably had neglectful parents or was deeply misunderstood. She may have been, but you don’t know the whys of her devious actions.
Stick to your truth in regard to other people. Detail what these events meant to you and how you managed them.
If something happens to you, it’s yours. You don’t need permission to tell your own stories.
But what if the only way to write your narrative is when it overlaps someone else’s?
We’re social creatures. It’s difficult to have a story in isolation from others. But you can try to minimize the telling of other tales in favor of focusing on the key points of your narrative. That’s why it’s important to stick to what happened instead of making guesses about why it happened.
Speaking of other people’s stories, I’m stealing a strategy from my therapist to use for memoir writing. She’s cool with it.
This is an identity development tool. In therapy, it’s used to reassess your relationships. But I found it can be helpful for examining both your real life relationships and those in your memoir writing.
Take a sheet of paper and put your name in the center of the page with a circle around it.
List the various people in your life (who will appear in your memoir) around your circle.
Put your closest connections nearest to your named inner circle.
Put people who are further from you around the outer edges of your paper.
Draw a line from the center point (you) to each person.
This can be as messy as it needs to be. The goal is to see yourself (as your character) in the middle of the people in your life (and story).
As you draw the line from you in the center to each friend or relative, consider your relationship to that person. Don’t think about how that person perceives you, instead think about the overall relationship quality.
For example, maybe you think your BFF is your go-to person, but you find it’s a lopsided friendship. You’re the one doing all the heavy lifting. Perhaps you need to reconsider how much time and energy you invest in this relationship.
For memoir writing, we’re looking at how each connection expresses some concept about ourselves.
Detailing all the juice you’ve got on your evil ex-husband isn’t the best idea. A scandalous tell-all might seem like a great way to get revenge, but trust me when I say all that does is tell us more about you. And it doesn’t paint the best picture. Plus, it’ll only matter if your ex-husband was George Clooney or Brad Pitt, and then the story becomes about him, not you.
Stay away from tawdry exposés.
That doesn’t mean you should downplay what happened to you, cover it up, or lie.
State what happened. Be honest. Let the story be about how you faced your challenges and sought to overcome them. Soon you’ll realize that ex-husband is no longer a threat. He’s in your past for a reason, right? Now, he’s just an obstacle for your main character to manage. And if he starts to distress you, you can close the book for a bit.
So, make your identity chart. And as you draw a line to each person, ask yourself:
What is My Relationship To ____________?
Name the relationship specifically. No weird question mark relationships allowed.
What Does this Character Represent?
Identify some type of higher ideal either that the character themselves represent or that your main character’s relationship to that other character has allowed you to uncover.
For example, did you have a high school teacher who unfairly targeted you? Maybe from it you gained a sense of determination. Either a determination to win her over or a determination to do well despite the obstacles she put in your path. Call your relationship to her “determination” and explore that theme using your teacher as the guide.
Bad guys have important jobs to do, too.
What is My Goal for this Relationship?
Were your needs met in each relationship? If not, what valuable lessons did you learn? Did you have to change the nature of any relationship due to a life event, a reevaluation of the person, or a death?
In all of these questions, you’re looking at the bigger picture. What’s the takeaway and do these relationships empower your main character to take action and make meaning in her life?
Keep in mind your goal is to tell your story. Get as close to the bone as possible. What’s the real purpose for each relationship in your memoir?