How to Write Memoir So They Don’t Read It, They Live It

Today’s guest post is by Cyndy Etler (@cdetler), author of We Can’t Be Friends and The Dead Inside.


Right. So you’re memoir-motivated. You’ve lived through something intense, something different, and readers will find it fascinating. You’re off to a great start with that hella-interesting story, but you’ve got to keep your readers riveted with your writing style. How you gonna do that?

Well, pop quiz. Which is more exciting: riding a rollercoaster, or watching someone else ride a rollercoaster? Yeah, duh. Same principle. To keep readers glued to the page, you write so they’re living the rollercoaster, not watching it. Here’s how.

Relive the experience yourself.

If your readers are going to put themselves in your skin and live your experiences, you need to be hyper-conscious of what those experiences looked, felt and sounded like before you write them. Starting with a list of the memories you plan to write about (more on how to develop that list here), you’re going to immerse yourself into those events, to bring back all the feels. To do that, your brain’s gotta open its doors and let you roam around. To get your brain’s consent, you need to make your brain feel safe. Phew. We’re going deep today.

So. To get access to those memories:

  • Isolate yourself completely. Get up at 4:30 a.m. Wear noise-cancelling headphones. Make sure nobody can see you.
  • Lean back, close your eyes, and mentally bring up the event. It’s in there. Let it surface.
  • Bathe in the details of the memory. Let yourself remember exactly what happened, what it looked like, who said what, how you felt.

If this is a struggle, write yourself a list of grit-level questions about the sensory details of the event. These questions will work like a Google search, telling your brain what to look for. A friend reached out to me for help recovering the details of her school bus bullying. I wrote her a list of questions; you can use it as a model. My list went like this:

  • What did the bus’s door look like as you stepped up to it? How steep was that first step? What did you look at when you got on the bus? What seat did you choose? Why? What did the seat feel like? What did you look at when you sat down?
  • What did you use to arm yourself against the bullies—a Le Sport Sac? Long bangs in your face? A Walkman? What were kids talking about as they walked past your seat? How did you sense what the mood was that day?
  • How, exactly, did the bullying start? How did your body react to it? What did the other kids do? Think micro-level—tiny shifts in musculature, in body language, in tilt of heads. Did they enjoy it, or did they feel guilty? How did you know?
  • What did the mean kids wear? What did their hair look like? What did they smell like? How did they move? What did you think of them? Why were they doing this to you? What were your thoughts? Your fears?

Pop in your earbuds and hit play on the music you lived for at that time. Music will flood your brain with memories. For triple points, lock yourself in a car, in a garage, in the dark, and play the music loud on the car stereo. Total immersion.

While writing my first memoir, The Dead Inside, I needed to tap into intense memories of childhood violence. So I barricaded myself in a closet. With an armchair pressed against the door. And a teddy bear on my lap. When that didn’t work, and I still couldn’t bring back concrete memories, I had to step away from the writing. I won’t write a scene with vague, broad-strokes style—borr-ring—and I won’t include a scene unless I can say, unequivocally, “I remember this happening. It’s 100% true.” This pause in my writing was frustrating and scary, as this was the pivotal scene in the book. But what choice did I have?

It came to me when I’d all but given up. For a long drive through nowheresville, I’d packed my car with CDs. Deep into Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the judgment scene came on and hit me like a short, sharp jab to the skull. This song, these lyrics—this was exactly how the event played out. I ended up writing the scene with song-lines staggering my snippets of memory, which was perfect: I needed the support of someone else’s content to recreate this unthinkable trauma. Which leads to this section’s final bullet point:

  • If the memories don’t come, step away from the work. Trust your brain to deliver the goods in some unexpected way.

Right after you’ve relived it, write it.

Now, quick! While the sensory deets are pulsing fresh in your brain: recreate them on paper (or pixels). Did your memories flow when you put yourself back there? Pick up your pen (or keyboard) and start writing. Did you write yourself a list of questions? Answer them and staple (or paste) your responses together into paragraphs.

Either way, consider writing first person, present tense. There’s no faster trick for ushering your readers into the experience, because when you read first person, present tense narration, you’re looking through the narrator’s eyes at events happening to “you,” right as they happen. Here, let’s try it. Read this paragraph and notice how you feel.

But wait. This was her boyfriend. He had asked her out, officially, on the phone Wednesday night. She had to let him kiss her. That’s what girlfriends did. When she came out of the bathroom, he was lying on the sofa, propped up on his elbow. He was patting the cushion in front of him. He ‘wanted’ her, which should have made her feel great. Instead, it made her want to sit in his armchair and pick up his remote.

That was third person, past tense. Now, try reading it as I actually wrote it, first/present, in my memoir We Can’t Be Friends.

But wait. This is my boyfriend. He asked me out, officially, on the phone Wednesday night. I have to let him kiss me. That’s what girlfriends do. When I come out of the bathroom, he’s lying on the sofa, propped up on his elbow. He’s patting the cushion in front of him. He ‘wants’ me, which should make me feel great. Instead, it makes me want to sit in his armchair and pick up his remote.

Do you feel the diff? Which one’s flat, and which one crackles? In the first, you’re reading about someone else, in some vague, unspecified time. In the second, you’re reading about you, now. If your goal is to make your readers experience the rollercoaster, isn’t that the goal?

Create Vivid Settings

As 3-D as your memories may be, they have to live somewhere, and your settings need to be as lucid as your events. But don’t stress. This is the fun part, the arty part.

You know why that the huge box of Crayolas was the best? Because it had 18 different versions of, just, blue. You could draw an ocean and make people see how it got darker, deeper and colder by using those 18 blues. To make your reader feel like they should be paying rent on your settings, you write ’em like you’ve got those zillion Crayolas.

You can do that with tiny observations and details; by using those to communicate the narrator’s (ie, your) point-of-view. Here, let’s do a for-instance, with another paragraph from We Can’t Be Friends. The words that we’ll analyze are underlined.

My brain is a scribble as I step onto Sinclair’s front step, a slab of rock that dates back to the Pilgrims. There’s an inch of air between the door’s base and the floor; I can feel the heat on my toes. Sinclair’s can afford to heat the sidewalk because Sinclair’s charges three bucks for a piece of penny candy. The thumb latch door handle is soft and warm. It clacks so loud, the cashmere street ladies turn and look.

Now here’s how those words work.

  • “Scribble” and “Pilgrims,” frequent topics of classroom discussion, put readers into the school-kid’s worldview.
  • “Inch of air” creates a clear visual, while “heat on my toes” links that visual to the sense of touch.
  • A kid’s noticing that the store can “afford heat” reinforces the poverty mindset, where everything is measured in terms of cost—in this case, the cost of a basic need, heat.
  • “Soft and warm” is an unexpected—but here, strangely accurate—description of a thing made out of metal. The “softness” tells a subconscious story of an old, well-worn tool that dates back to the Pilgrims.
  • “Clack,” a sound-word, creates…well, sound. In your reader’s ear. So they’re experiencing this swoop of the rollercoaster.

A few questions to consider, in creating a vivid setting as seen through the narrator/your eyes:

  • How does this place compare to the places the narrator/you feels most at ease?
  • Who belongs in this place?
  • What details make that obvious?
  • How does the narrator/you fit in here?
  • What details make that obvious?

Be a Diction Zealot

Here’s where the hippy dippy free flow stops, and we get a little technical. We do a little self-censoring. Did your sirens go off at the very thought? Censoring? Yup, you heard me. Because here’s the deal. Without careful pruning, memoir can take the form of masturbatory brain barf. Without a ruthless eye trained on diction—the careful evaluation and choice of every single word—your life story is just that: your story. You know the guy at the party who corners you to talk a loud streak about his life, his job, his ego? Don’t be that guy. You can work toward not being that guy by using these tools.

This first one might sound like a contradiction of the jerk-at-the-party advice, but stick with me. We’re gonna morph that jerk into a captivating raconteur. When you’re writing memoir, you are writing about stuff that happened to you. So tell it exactly as it happened to you. Describe events from a your-brain-looking-outward perspective, rather than from a some-observer-watching-you perspective. This means: don’t describe how something happened; describe how it felt as it happened. What you saw. Body language. Facial expressions. Your interior monologue. Dialogue. Give us all that, and let us experience how it happened, for ourselves.

For example, I don’t “cheerfully greet” my neighbor. You don’t, either. Nobody observes their own actions, then labels how they did them. Here’s what I do: I yell, “Heyyyy, girrrrl” and watch her face crack into that grin, the one like a third martini. Maybe you go, “Mornin’ Miss Shelly” or “What’s good, man.” Whatever you actually say, however you actually say it, give us that. Verbatim.

This means no adverbs. Ever. There’s no quicker way to rip us off the rollercoaster and park us on the granny-bench than to adverb your verbs.

Let me prove it. Let’s take my neighborly greeting and adverb it up. Here’s what happens: “I yell loudly.” “She grins quickly.” Ho-to-the-hum, right? Ho frigging hum. If it’s just not you to get fancy with the metaphors—with the grin like a third martini—fine. Stick with the facts. Yell. Grin. Period. No adverb.

While we’re on the topic of being not-too-fancy, beware of thesaurus overdrive in your pursuit of good diction. Let’s turn that neighbor-greeting sentence into a cautionary tale.

Maybe “yell” is too common. Does it need spicing up? Let’s try some synonyms. “‘Heyyy, girrrl!’ I screech…” and suddenly I’m a lunatic, waking up the neighborhood. Make it “squeal,” and I better have some hot, giggly little story on tap, to justify my piglet noise. You picking up what I’m throwing down?

To be clear: all synonyms are not good synonyms. Words can have nuance and connotation. Before you slip in a thesaurus gem as a replacement, read your new sentence with an eye toward those layers. Does it accurately describe the character, the scene, the motivation? Beautiful. Does it read like you’re a first-year grad student, desperate to impress? Not so beautiful.

Still, finding the just-right word is the mark of the fine writer, and the glue that sticks your reader to the page. Thesaurus.com is my best friend, but I use it cautiously. Knowing when to seek out a better word is tough to quantify; you have to kind of … listen for it: for the spots in your writing that are vital, when you need to hit your reader with impact.

When you find those spots, take the mediocre word that you’d automatically put there, and look it up on Thesaurus.com. Then look through the lists of synonyms for the just-right replacement. To be just-right, the new word must:

  • Match the tone of the narrator
  • Match the mood of the scene
  • Flow, syllabically, in the meat of the sentence. It can’t make the sentence rhythm clunky.

If a word that meets these specs isn’t on the lists, look up other words that convey the same thing. This can take a long, ass, time. But when you put in the effort, when you find the just-right word, it’s grease for the tracks. That coaster just flies schwings zings up and down those curves.

Okay, you’re almost done. In your drive to write crackling, pulsating memoir, you’ve done a literary Ironman: you relived your memories, put your readers into your life’s scenes, gave ’em the sensory details, and had them think your thoughts. You’ve even done the brutal work of moderating and excising your word flow. Your memoir’s greased and ready to roll, after this one last tiny edit: take out the “ea” and replace it with an “i,” because you don’t have readers, kid. After all this hard work? What you’ve got is riders.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.
Cyndy Etler

Cyndy Etler

Cyndy Etler is the author of young adult memoirs The Dead Inside and We Can’t Be Friends (Sourcebooks Fire). Her books take readers into her sixteen months in Straight Inc., a teen treatment program the ACLU called “a concentration camp for throwaway teens,” and then back to her druggie high school, packed with dangerous jockos and cheerleaders.

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15 Comments on "How to Write Memoir So They Don’t Read It, They Live It"

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Rachel Thompson

Amazing article and I would expect nothing less from this talented memoirist. Cyndy’s books crackle, make me laugh out loud AND cry. I’m honestly not sure why her books aren’t New York Times bestsellers as well as movies at this point. She’s that amazing.

This is a master-level class in writing memoir every writer needs to read, no matter what genre they write. Thank you for featuring Cyndy, Jane.

Cyndy Etler

I’d roll out one of those phrases about “likes attracts like” or “takes one to know one,” but then I’d have to stab myself in the writing hand with a sharp instrument because cliche! cliche! No, no, no! So I’ll resort to this: love ya back, girl. You AND your books.

julie

You’ve given me much to think about here. I also use thesaurus.com, and you are right- not all synonyms are created equal. Choosing words carefully is a writer’s job. Thanks for a smart, helpful article, Cyndy. Best of luck to you!

Cyndy Etler

Thank you, Julie! If you’re digging the OCD-level memoir instruction here, you might enjoy the other posts I’ve done for Jane…one is the precursor to this one, on cranking out the first draft of a mem; the other is YA-centric. You can find those here: https://www.janefriedman.com/author/cyndy-etler/

GinnyMcKinney

My agent retweeted this and I picked it up. What I thought was going to be a slam dunk is turning into a grueling marathon. *pastes post to home screen*

Cyndy Etler

Ohhh, crap. Crappity crap. Marathons.
What was supposed to be the slam dunk, though? The writing of your memoir, or the reading of this post?

penpen
I’m working my way through a memoir of my early work years–ostensibly for my grandkids but of course with an eye toward others reading it. I thought I would breeze through it since I’ve been writing non-fiction [freelance and for a national publication] for more than 40 years. But I found one set of skills doesn’t necessarily transfer to another genre. I read a Mary Karr book to help but found this essay direct and helpful. Ready to lock myself in that quiet room and get in touch with what I was feeling at the time. Many thanks for posting… Read more »
Cyndy Etler

PenPen, you are exactly what this world needs more of: people who recognize their strengths, and aso recognize where there’s room for growth. The precursor to this post gives nitty-gritty steps for getting the whole thing, the whole memoir, organized and on paper; if you’re interested, you can find that one here: https://www.janefriedman.com/write-memoir-lists/

Desertphile
This is a very fine article. Thank you. One should perhaps be cautious to not imagine memories. Most human beings fabricate memories and have no idea they have done so. Regarding a memoir with a roller coaster feel, I deliberately plotted my memoir so that the happy and fun events are demarcated with a few sad events in between so that the reader is vicariously happy and laughing one chapter and sad or concerned in the next chapter. This took a staggering amount of thinking and diagramming on paper to make the story follow chronologically and “stratigraphically” while still being… Read more »
Cyndy Etler

Desertphile, we’re on the same…the…same…page. Oy, a cliche. Next time I’ll write about avoiding cliches. I agree with you completely!

Frank Parker
This is excellent advice for ALL writing. When writing fiction it’s important to get inside your character’s head and take your readers in there with you. This is exactly how you do it, except you’re using imagination rather than memory – although memories will help your imagination. Your character approaches a door; describe a door you remember (if it fits the scene in your imagination). He’s there to meet someone in an encounter that he fears; you’ve been in that situation – a job interview, a reprimand from the head of school – what thoughts went through YOUR head as… Read more »
Cyndy Etler

Right on, Frank Parker. I see what you’re doing there. My perpetual question for fiction writers is, how on earth do you manufacture an engaging plot? With memoir, that hardest bit is written by the hand of fate!

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[…] Since our readers write in many different genres, Tracy Marchini demystifies picture books in a brief primer, and Cyndy Etler shows how to write memoir so your readers live it. […]

patriciaruthsusan

Thanks, Cyndy for this thorough and helpful post. 🙂 — Suzanne

Cyndy Etler

So glad you found it to be helpful, Patricia! Thanks for taking the time to coment.