While I am not an expert on writing memoirs after writing my first, I learned a few lessons worth sharing. Some lessons were emotional and others were logistical.
- My husband gave me the best advice: write as if there is no volume 2. Write as if there is no sequel. Write envisioning future generations reading your words. Write for them. That way, you’ll invest all of you into this volume without leaving something for the next book. The only certainty you have is this current volume, so put your heart and soul into it.
- Read a couple of “mentor texts” of memoirs that resemble your style. Because my memoir was a cross-cultural journey, I focused my mentor texts written by authors who were immigrants themselves. If you want your memoir to be humorous, read Frank McCourt. His Angela’s Ashes memoir was a masterpiece of tragicomedy. If you want to write your story of belonging and identity negotiation, read Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: My Life in a New Language. If you are interested in capturing “an elegy to the lost country of childhood,” read Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs.
- Decide on your leit motif early on so it can carry it throughout the chapters. The leit motif can serve as your organizing framework, freeing you from having to organize your writing chronologically.
- Even though you might set out to write your story as a sequence of events, be ready for deep reflection and soul searching. Be ready to be unraveled, disturbed, shaken up, homesick, surprised, perturbed, and even angry at times.
- When you begin writing, remember that the first draft is the story you tell yourself (paraphrasing Terry Pratchett). Or using an elementary teacher’s advice: “when you think you are done, you have just begun.” To the degree that is possible, separate yourself from your writing. If not emotionally, then physically. Close your laptop, walk away for a couple of weeks. Ruminate on your ideas. Be ready for some stuff to bubble up. Deal with the emotions, talk to someone safe who will understand you. Don’t rush your writing. Memoirs are not arguments. They are repositories of your feelings.
- Hire a book layout designer to save yourself dozens of hours of frustration trying to format it using settings in Microsoft Word that were never intended for book layouts. Or invest in desktop publishing software such as Adobe InDesign – a tool that does the job well. Although hiring someone is expensive (I spent $1,000 to design the book with 69,000 words and 40 pictures), it ends up looking professional. Using Word makes you look amateur and your content won’t be taken seriously.
- Hire an editor who can give you feedback on the overall development of ideas (not just your grammar and punctuation).
- There is no need to hire a publisher. Self publish your book. Memoir is a very personal genre. The publisher may ask you to rewrite your memoir in ways that won’t fit with your voice and your vision.
- Make a list of all your topics you want to cover or record them on your phone. Trust me, you won’t remember them unless they are written down.
- Ask a few of your friends to be your beta readers. Give them a particular lens for reading and ask for their honest feedback.