The prospect of penning your personal memoir can be incredibly daunting — and now that mine has just been published, I’ve been able to carve out a few moments to reflect on the experience. By sharing my insights into the process, I hope to inspire others to get started on their memoirs. Here’s what I’ve learned:
A memoir, unlike an autobiography, doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t!) cover your entire life. Instead, it relies on memory and hones in on a pivotal time or events in one’s life. Many memoirists approach the genre to address a larger theme, concept, or idea. Some of the best to do it, like Joan Didion — who masterfully explored heartbreaking grief in the devastatingly beautiful The Year of Magical Thinking — are able to conjure up and render their experiences and observations as an offering to readers. A great memoir is like a great novel; putting it down should be hard, and the events can be as wild and as unforgettable as fiction.
For my memoir, The Community, in which I write about the impact that living in a religious cult when I was a young child had on me and my family, I try to bring the reader into my world. The narrator’s job is to report events to the best of their knowledge, or memory, as possible and to be honest about the gaps that exist. This means that writers can explore any part of their lives, from infancy through adulthood, with as many different literary techniques they have within their toolbox. The Community largely focuses on my early childhood through adolescence, and some of these memories I had been storing as dreams, random images, and even scents and odors. Some memories were window clear, while others were spotty. But that’s okay, because the thesis, the precision of a story, and how it is told are often the ingredients that make a memoir great. Harry Crews’ A Childhood is about only the first six years of his life, but it shows, vividly and indelibly, how the events and people from that time period shaped him into a storyteller.
We tell stories to our loved ones that we can’t shake, and we hope that if these stories cast a spell on us, then maybe they can spellbind readers too. The Community explores the inside culture and surroundings of the cult in which I lived but also my emotions and those of my mother’s. Did I know how my mother felt at the time when the story takes place? No. To find out and to help fill in some of my own memory gaps, I interviewed her over the course of a year. In doing so, I learned some of her own stories, which I then included in the memoir, with her approval. Some of those stories were so outrageous that I thought, if I’m engrossed, surely others might be as well. After all, a good story is a good story, right?
Once the feat of writing the manuscript has been accomplished, finding a home for it is the next step. Similarly to online dating, in which a person creates a compelling profile and a pitch that they hope will eventually turn into a proposal, writers hope to make literary agents and editors swoon over their story. Some writers self-publish for many different reasons, including the desire to have full creative and copyright control, while many others look for a literary match in an agent, who in turn pitches the writer’s project to book editors with fingers and toes crossed in the hopes of securing a publishing deal. This process can happen quickly or take months to resolve, and having an agent to lean on, vent to, wring hands with, and then ultimately cheer alongside of when an editor says yes has saved a great many writers from throwing notepads, typewriters, and laptops into rivers.
When the deal is done, the writer and the editor(s) go to work for months, poring over the manuscript to sharpen its narrative, much like slowly sharpening a pencil’s point. It’s a painstaking process that any writer should be grateful for in the end. The editing process might feel overwhelming at times, but the hardest part is writing the story. And the best part, as Didion’s readers seemingly knew, is to then offer it up to them.
Writing and publishing a memoir requires consistency and persistence. It may also mean closing the door and walking away from the naysayer quietly whispering negative nothings inside of you. But it’s worth the effort. If you think you have a great story to tell, then tell it. I’ve shared mine with the world — now it’s your turn!
N. Jamiyla Chisholm is the Director of Creative Content for Barnard College's Communications Department.