On Writing Memoir

Yesterday evening, I attended a memoir workshop facilitated by Writer-In-Residence Camilla Gibb at the Kitchener Public Library. The author of four novels and a memoir (This is Happy), Camilla has a PhD in social anthropology from Oxford University. She teaches creative writing at the University of Guelph-Humber, University of Toronto, and Humber School for Writers.

Camilla started by suggesting the sub-title of this workshop could easily be “At Your Peril.” For over an hour, she shared well-crafted anecdotes, insights, and advice about the memoir writing process. A short Q & A period followed.

Here are several nuggets that captured my interest:

• Present trends in memoir writing include alcoholism, opioid addiction, cancer, degenerative diseases, Alzheimer’s, death of aging parents.

• To determine the plot, ask yourself what is compelling you to write this memoir now. What needs to be answered? Examples: How did I find myself here (addict, single mother, broke, cancer patient)? Why does my mother appear saner now that she has Alzheimer’s?

• Once you have the question, you will be able to decide which memories belong and which do not.

• Access the answers to your question through research. Read widely—fiction and nonfiction—about the subject that has captured your interest. Read as a writer not as a reader.

• If you don’t know the question, list your most compelling memories in chronological order. Then, search for the thread that links the past and present.

• Voice is the most critical component of memoir. Our lives are much more than the chronological rendering of facts.

• Think of yourself as a character. Examine the broader forces—class, gender, ethnicity, geography—that have shaped you. Consider changing the name of the character and then give her your biography. Do you see yourself differently?

• We get attached to certain narratives in our lives. The truth is underneath the stories we tell ourselves.

• Memoirists engage in the editing of their lives for narrative effect. Examples: Cutting back on repetition, leaving out uneventful periods, and making omissions for the sake of self-preservation.

• When writing memoirs, we will inevitably trespass into the lives of others. We need to be careful not to include anything that betrays the spirit of a contract (employment, marital). Also, we must not share anything that could result in the loss of income or reputation for people in our circles. These could be grounds for legal injunction.

• Big publishers have in-house legal counsel. If self-publishing, hire a libel author to go through the memoir.

Memoirs Mentioned

The Liars’ Club by Mary Carr
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer
Wild by Cheryl Strayed


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6 responses to “On Writing Memoir

  1. My first book, published in 1990, was a memoir. However, it was narrowly focused on my first year and a half in the USMC during the Vietnam War. It covered my arrival at boot camp (the infamous Parris Island) and my tour of combat duty in Vietnam. I’m happy to say it’s remained in print all these years, currently with Simon & Schuster/Pocket. If all my subsequent books had been half as successful as my memoir, I would be one happy camper! Thanks for an interesting post. 🙂
    –Michael

    • Good to see you here, Michael. Your memoir sounds fascinating. Many of my former students in Ontario looked forward to taking American history; they wanted to learn all about the Civil and Vietnam wars. Congrats on your success. 🙂

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