I am writing my memoir of the early years with my three children of autism. I’ve planned out and edited books that were driven by information. This is very different. It’s an interesting experience for my writing, because it’s much more seat-of-the-pants than I expected. It’s also much more driven by story, which I did expect.
It is a memoir and it is nonfiction, so it is factual. But it is a memoir, so it’s also a story. It is an experiential narrative with commentary thrown in, not short narrative moments that complement a well-researched piece. In short, I’m in full-on story mode, and yet have to delve my memory for the sake of accuracy. It involves using different mental muscles, that’s for sure!
Often, in explaining what I’m doing, I have to explain the narrative form and the structure of a novel. Perhaps it’s just my training, but I think a memoir should have the same structure as a novel: beginning, middle, and end. Or, as I prefer, foundation, inciting incident, conflict, climax, and denouement.
I stress this, because so many of them don’t. I was put off from memoirs early on, because too many memoirs are written more like diaries than stories, or more like biographies, or worse still, more fiction than real life.
A memoir is a personal story with a point. It is a story with a dramatic arc. In my case, finding that story was a matter of figuring out where to begin and where to end. Some people’s stories don’t have dramatic arcs, and thus they should write in a form other than memoir.
When writing a memoir, it’s kind of like casting yourself as the heroine in a novel, except the story depicted really happened. It takes looking at one’s life and figuring out where you were the hero. But it also takes looking at one’s life and figuring out where you started out flawed and how those flaws impacted your story—I mean life. You have to find your arc!
For my story, it begins when I first realized my children were developmental delayed, rather when I was first able to get that verified by someone else. I wasn’t a hero. I didn’t even know what I was doing. But, over the course of my story, I become a passionate advocate for my children. That’s my arc. And it even has a climax involving a battle with a corrupted facet of the government. So, you see, it’s not about the casting—that’s set by fact—but about the arc and about being willing to honestly reveal your arc.
The key, then, is to tell the truth, but tell it dramatically. Accuracy and passion have to dance through a memoir.
Then again, in fiction, accuracy and passion dance, too. It’s just someone else’s story, someone who may only exist in our dreams.