This is a new recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned
So Far,” where writers at any stage of their career can talk
about seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they
knew at the beginning. This installment is from Alexis Grant, journalist
and memoir writer.
first book, a
travel memoir about backpacking
solo through Africa. See
her website here.
1. No story’s about the author. A memoir revolves around the author’s experiences
and ideas—and so can fiction and nonfiction. But the story is never really about
the author. It’s about something larger than one person, a theme readers can relate
to, one that makes them reflect on their own life. My memoir, for example, is my story
of backpacking through French-speaking Africa. What’s it really about? Why
each of us should take a leap in life, and the value of traveling solo. I’m an important
piece of that. But the story’s not solely about me.
2. Artist’s colonies are worth jumping into. I consider myself a journalist,
not an artist. But during my first
artist’s residency this year, when I spent five weeks in the woods of northern
Georgia, I learned that I really do write more and better in a quiet setting with
no distractions. I also met other creative types who opened my eyes to new ideas and
fed my writing fire. Finding the time—and sometimes the money—to go to a colony can
be difficult, but you’ll be glad you did.
3. Writing a memoir is a lot like writing fiction. It’s nonfiction, of course.
All my stories are true. But they have to be told with dialogue, description, scene-setting,
pace, characters—the same tools I’d use to write a novel. (These skills do not come
naturally to someone who has used direct quotes and right-to-the-point leads for most
of her writing career.) Writing this way takes practice. It helps sometimes to remind
myself that my true story should read like a novel.
4. Exercise has more than physical benefits. Stuck on a scene? Sick of a chapter?
Taking a break to go for a run or walk the dog isn’t wasted time. It’s a chance to
think about the story without the pressure of having to put words on paper. Your brain
is still working but in a different way, which may benefit you and your story in the
long run (pun intended). I do my best thinking when I don’t mean to—while running.
5. A problem can be solved by writing through it. Not sure where the story’s
going or whether there’s a bigger lesson behind a scene? You’ll never know if you
don’t start writing. Put words to paper—any
words—and sometimes the
muse works her magic, bringing the story to a place you didn’t expect. Other times
that scene should go right into the trash. But even knowing where the story’s not going
can help. And often the best way to figure that out is to write through it.
6. My favorite parts aren’t necessarily important to the story. I loved watching
the sun set over the Niger River—but that memory, however important to me, might not
help my book. For every scene, we must ask ourselves: What’s the reason for including
it? Does it propel the story forward? How does it benefit the reader? When it comes
to your favorite parts, ask yourself these questions twice. Just because it’s good
for you doesn’t mean it’s good for the story.
7. If it’s embarrassing, it’s probably a keeper. Details that feel the most
revealing tend to be the ones that let the reader into my head and help them understand
me as a person—and that’s what memoir is all about. Whenever I’m tempted to cut
an embarrassing paragraph,* I remind myself that those are usually the parts my
readers enjoy most. Of course, this rule of thumb can be taken too far—a memoir is
not, after all, a diary. But most of our face-reddening habits or thoughts serve a
vital purpose in our stories: they make us more human. If it helps the reader relate
to you, it’s worth keeping.
Want more on this topic?
to pen a guest column? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
tips on writing book-length memoirs.
A great resource for memoir writing is Writing
Confused about formatting?
Check out Formatting
& Submitting Your Manuscript.
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