Lessons I’ve Learned About Memoir Writing

by Jenny Hansen

In my wildest dreams, I never imagined I’d write a memoir.

Like most of you, I’ve written as long as I can remember, and from the very first day, I’ve lived solidly in the fiction camp.

Before we get any farther, let’s make sure we’re all speaking the same language.

What is a memoir?

The best definition I’ve found of memoir and how it differs from autobiography can be found here. In case you don’t have time to read that fantastic post by Barbara Doyen, here’s a quick summary:

A memoir is a special kind of autobiography, usually involving a public portion of the author’s life as it relates to a person, historic event, or thing. The text is about the personal knowledge and/or experiences of the author.

It’s my personal opinion that memoir writers are made, not born.

  • You need to feel strongly enough about the events in the book that you’re willing to lay them out for the world to see, with none of the anonymous padding that fiction provides.
  • You must be well-versed in 3-Act Structure and story mechanics.
  • You need the objectivity to slice and dice your experience until it fits neatly into this 3-Act Structure.

What motivated ME to write a memoir?

In 2005, I survived a massive bout with blood clots – two big ones (one in each leg) became a swarm of them in my lungs. They call those pulmonary emboli, but really, they’re all blood clots. 1% of the people who experience what I did live through it.

When my treatment was done (after 4 months in bed and 9 months on blood thinners), I found out I have a blood clotting disorder called Factor V Leiden. Many things about my daily living habits had to change to accommodate this disorder.

Was the experience memoir-worthy? I don’t think so. It simply wasn’t universal or compelling enough. I lived and I was thankful, and I had to make some lifestyle changes. End of story.

But what about when I threw pregnancy into the mix?

The four main causes of a blood clot are cancer, obesity, a previous blood clot and a genetic disorder. Obviously, I fit several of these risk criteria. I couldn’t just decide to have a baby, I had to visit the high risk OB and ask permission just to try.

Pregnant women gain four pounds of blood, which increases the risk of forming a blood clot by 8 times. Yowza.

My pregnancy journey was rocky, to put it mildly – infertility, shots in the stomach twice a day, worries about late-term miscarriage and fetal demise.

Was the pregnancy itself a big enough theme to support the frame of a memoir? By itself, probably not.

Memoirs must have themes that speak to a wide audience.

These aren’t how-to books, and they’re not autobiographies. As Barbara Doyen says in the “what is memoir” post I reference above:

A memoir does not contain everything from this particular slice of the author’s life, but rather, events are selected and examined for meaning relative to the purpose of the book.

The author has questioned what happened and come to some kind of new understanding or lesson learned by it. The author shows us how he or she was affected by this experience, how it has profoundly changed the way he sees the world.

And by extension, reading the book will change the way the reader sees the world.

I worried about whether I could make my book universally compelling.

All the writers here at WITS will tell you, I spend a lot of time and effort on theme, whether it’s their books or mine.

To me, a book works like this:

  • Plot is the train that drives your book.
  • Theme is the track the plot runs on.
  • Characters are the ones who populate the train and make things interesting.

One of the reasons why memoirs are so tough is that your plot and characters are already in place. All you have left to work with is theme. Your theme (or themes if you’re lucky) are what really hold a memoir together and make it a journey worth taking.

A deep soul-search for themes in my memoir yielded more than I thought:

  • Survival: What if I showed how the lessons learned with the blood clot scare helped save the day during my pregnancy?
  • Self-worth: What if I discussed the guilt and depression that women feel when they can’t conceive?
  • Fear: What if there were things that I knew that could help other women, and their family members, have an easier time through their own rocky journey?

This last is at the heart of why I would put my fiction aside.

I was compelled to write about high-risk/high-worry pregnancy because these women feel so terrified and alone. They’re not experiencing the joyous, “fluffy cloud” type of pregnancy so many of their friends and family tell them about. Worst of all, the end-game isn’t guaranteed and they’re scared.

High-risk mommies have all the information overload of “regular” mommies, but there’s a whole lot more. Shots, bed rest, miscarriages, endless doctor appointments. These women spend some or all of their pregnancies wondering things like: “Will I get to keep this baby?” and “Will I die?”

I spent my entire pregnancy wondering, “Where’s the book for THIS kind of pregnancy?!” I simply could not rest until I wrote one.

In my opinion, this sort of compulsion is the only thing that will sustain you through the hassle of fact-checking, research and structuring of ANY book. But the memoir factor adds an extra dollop of a pain. It’s hard to figure out how to break a true story into 3-Act structure – we simply can’t see our own lives clearly. Still, you MUST do it, the same as you would any other novel.

A quick note on 3-Act structure:

Many, many writers don’t have a clear concept of it. I know I didn’t until I saw Stephen Cannell (creator of the Rockford Files and like 40 other TV shows) give a talk. If you want to read an entire post on this topic, click here. In the meantime, here’s a quick summary of 3-Act Structure using Stephen Cannell’s words – feel free to skip this if you’re a 3-Act Pro:

“When I ask young writers what 3-Act Structure is, they say it has a beginning, middle and an end. This is not the answer. A lunch line has a beginning, middle and an end. The Three-Act structure is critical to good dramatic writing, and each act has specific story moves.”

Take the movie, “When Harry Met Sally.”

The First Act is all about the hook, or the premise. In this case, it’s that “men and women cannot be friends.” So you’ve got the set-up where they meet and then decide they’re not going to be friends.

Act Two opens with Harry and Sally meeting up again in the bookstore and slowly becoming friends. Their friendship becomes the single most important thing in their lives and the worst thing in the world would be to lose it.

The scene in the wedding is the dark moment climax of Act 2 because it is the end of their friendship as we know it. The curtain closes on Act 2 because the WORST thing has happened…the two of them are no longer friends.

Act Three is the “clean up” act, the resolution to your story. In this case, it’s all about Harry trying to get back into Sally’s good graces so the two of them can be friends again, just as they were. Sally’s having none of it.

Finally, on New Year’s Eve, Harry has his turning point and we get the final scene of the movie where he runs through New York City to get to Sally before midnight. When he sees her at the party, he gives his now famous I-Love-You speech.

When I heard this talk, the light bulb turned on for me. Hopefully, it did the same for any of you that were iffy about why there’s such a time disparity in the three acts.

Just remember the 25-50-25 rule:

  • Act 1: First 25% of your story – the hook
  • Act 2: Next 50% of your story – ends with the black moment
  • Act 3: Last 25% of your story – the resolution of the black moment, leaving your main character with a new understanding.

To see Stephen Cannell’s “official description” of 3-Act Structure click here – he does a fantastic breakdown of the movie, Love Story.

I’m going to turn the floor over to you now…

Are you attracted to memoirs, either as a reader or a writer? What interests you the most about this genre? What do you dislike about it? Feel free to ask any questions or share any insights you have in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

Jenny

About Jenny Hansen

Jenny fills her nights with humor: writing memoir, women’s fiction, chick lit, short stories (and chasing after her toddler Baby Girl). By day, she provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. After 15 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s digging this sit down and write thing.

When she’s not at her blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at jhansenwrites or here at Writers In The Storm. Every Saturday, she writes the Risky Baby Business posts at More Cowbell, a series that focuses on babies, new parents and high-risk pregnancy.

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32 Responses to Lessons I’ve Learned About Memoir Writing

  1. Liz Flaherty says:

    I think your memoir sounds interesting, and I love what you’ve written here about the process. I’m also so happy for you that Baby Girl is a reality and that you are a Survivor.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Awww, thanks Liz! I’m delighted that Baby Girl is a reality. She’s the very best gift I ever received (besides my husband and my life). :-)

      We appreciate that you took a moment to comment here at WITS!

  2. Gosh, Jenny, when I read the 1% survival factor, I shuddered. I knew you went through a life-threatening experience, but I didn’t realize the magnitude of the odds.

    Yes, I read memoirs. No, I don’t usually find them page-turners because they’re often linear in nature, and filled with fluff to up the word count. The most compelling one I remember reading was George Burns on his life with Gracie.

    Yours will be up next–not only because you understand the three-act structure and the need to cut the fluff. Your voice will carry the reader through your tough times. And, the magnitude of your true grit survival(s)? More than enough to keep us clicking the pages.

    My one wish is that the market focus would expand to attract survivors (or, sufferers) of other life-threatening and challenging situations. Your message will be a gift for high-risk pregnancy women. But, I hear your voice challenging the rest of us to buck up and deal with Life on Life’s Terms.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Gloria, you give me way too much credit…I just put my head down and tried not to pass out from the fear. Oh, and also worked on not bitching too much…

      Seriously, the problem with so many memoirs is that objectivity factor. Unless you stick to a strict structure or get the thing really well edited, it’s easy to think that all those nifty tangents are important. (They’re not. :-) )

  3. LauraDrake says:

    Oh Jenny, as someone who watched this with trepidation, I was amazed by your strength then, and I’m so inspired by you now . . . the thought of digging back into my guts for the pain and fear, and smearing it on a page makes me shudder. You are one Warrior Mamma. I’m proud to call you my friend.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      *sniffling*

      My support network had a whole lot to do with the outcome, I think. And you dig in your guts for pain and fear and smear it on the page all the time. You just give it a character’s name and call it fiction. :-)

  4. olderwriter says:

    I have long thought about writing a memoir. I even once pitched what I thought would work on a memoir of my life to an agent. That’s when she asked me what was the theme of my memoir. I hadn’t gotten to the point of thinking about that. In fact I wondered how in the world telling about events in my life could even have a theme. You have certainly clarified that for me today. So I guess my memoir of a life changing event and there have been several in my long life will one day be written. Just not today because book of a fictional series is drawing to its inevitable close. Thanks Jenny.

  5. K.B. Owen says:

    How much poorer we would all be if you hadn’t made it through, Jenny! We are ALL lucky here. I am looking forward to your memoir, girlie. It’s going to be fabulous!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      *more sniffling*

      Y’all are slaying me today with your sweet words. THANK YOU, Kathy! I’m delighted to be here with all of you, and will be very happy when this book is done. Memoirs are hard work! :-)

  6. Julie Glover says:

    No wonder you live in the world of more cowbell! Your life is the definition of giving it extra punch and perseverance. Your memoir sounds that a very worthwhile project that will help plenty of women. I can’t imagine what you went through to get your daughter, but I’m amazed by your strength and so glad you’re willing to share what you learned with others.

  7. John Holton says:

    This has been a lot of help. I’m looking forward to seeing your masterpiece.

    I’ve been working on the story of my Dad dying the day before Chicago was buried under two feet of snow. I don’t see it as a book-length story, probably no more than ten pages, which makes me wonder what to call it. I’ve been calling it a memoir, but now I’m not so sure that’s what it is. (A “memoirette,” maybe?) Anyway, this will help as I try to rewrite what I have. Thanks!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I’m blessing you for that “masterpiece” comment, John. :-)

      I cannot imagine what you all went through losing a family member right before weather shut down an entire city. That being said, since it is 10 pages, I think you can apply 3-Act structure to it and submit it to some short story contests. Donna Newton lists all of them on her site about once a week.

      I look forward to hearing more about this story.

  8. Jenny, I have had a feeling of who you are from your wonderful posts here at WITS, from some of your work and that great smile. To open the door to your soul and allow others to see inside, is a special gift. A gift to be able to write such a personal story, and the gift of how well someone like you can deliver. Yes, I read them … have been inspired by some … but those are people “out there,” you on the other hand are more accessible, you are here. I also appreciate your links and although Cannell is no longer with us, I think he continues to inspire and teach. That is another aspect of your memoir … it will be something that continues to inspire and teach for many years :)

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks so much for always taking time to comment here at WITS, Florence. We appreciate you and the perspective you provide. And I’m glad someone else is joining me in the “I miss Stephen Cannell to pieces” movement. He was AMAZING.

  9. Amazing post Jenny. I love how you break down the essential for writing a memoir because it’s always seemed like kind of a beast to me. Put this way, I can see how I could look at my own life to evaluate and possibly plot out a memoir so THANK you!
    I LOVE memoirs. There is something so incredible about reading someone’s true story/experience. Luv it! I can’t WAIT to read yours…

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I think you could write a bangin’ memoir, Natalie!! The trick is to find the most important themes and write to them. :-)

      Knowing you as I do, I think you could find some pretty amazing themes running through your story.

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  11. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks Jenny . I love the idea of mixing my own personal experience with a historical event in my life time to explain my journey. Thanks for making it sound possible. I am a faithful journal writer so think that some of the thoughts feelings and actuals are already recorded its just deciding waht slice to serve!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Elizabeth, what a blessing that you keep a journal! I’ve often wished that I had – it would have been such a help as I’m writing this memoir. And certainly, I wrote down some things, but there are many, many memories I’m having to reconstruct through conversation with others.

      My advice: Decide on your basic scenes and structure and the themes of your memoir first. Then go through the journals and pick the pieces that reinforce those things. It’s much harder otherwise.

      Good luck!

  12. lorriethomson says:

    Thank you for the post, Jenny, and the courage to tell your real-life story. For years I’ve been saying I hide behind fiction. I’m also glad you mentioned Kasey’s memoir. I would’ve if you hadn’t. It’s a small world. Kasey and I met a couple of years ago at our local indie bookseller, and then, two winters ago, our kids were on the same ski team. I’m looking forward to her debut signing at that same bookstore.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You’re more than welcome, Lorrie! (And we ALL hide behind fiction! :-) )

      You know Kasey? I’m reading Preemie right now, and it’s fantastic! We’re online friends (through Renee Schulz-Jacobson) and Kasey is such a sweetheart.

  13. Reetta Raitanen says:

    Thank you for the insight into what’s the difference between a memoir and biography. And for sharing your story. You’re a real fighter.

  14. Arisa says:

    Thanks for this article. I never understood what a memoir even was. Because of this I don’t really feel either way about them? I’d probably need to read one to come to that kind of conclusion. Thus far my life doesn’t have any memoir material, so I’m not really sure about writing one haha.

  15. As a non-fiction writer, I love these posts, Jenny. Have you read Jenny Lawson’s memoir (she’s The Blogess). It is the funniest thing I’ve ever read…but I’m not yet convinced it fits the structure, yet it works. It has a chronological order, spans a couple decades, but still somehow works. Maybe it’s her voice.

    Note: I could be wrong: I’m only 2/3 the way through!

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