Five Things I’ve Learned from Writing a Memoir

Tuesday, June 5, 2018
Jo Case

A portarit of Jo Case
Jo Case

So, you want to write a memoir. Why? Jo Case lets us in on five things she's learned from writing memoir ahead of her Digital Memoir Intensive, a five month intensive online course for memoir writers.

1. Life writing is about making meaning of your experience in a way that connects with others.

So, you want to write a memoir. Why? There are lots of potential answers. Maybe you have a damn good tale to tell. Maybe you think there’s something about your life experiences that others could learn from, or take comfort from – both are good reasons.

But if you want to make your memoir a really good one, make sure that you’re speaking to an audience, not just telling your tale. Think about what makes your particular experience interesting to others – what’s both unique and universal in your story?

The best memoirs either bring out the ordinary, identifiable elements of an extraordinary story, so readers can imagine themselves in this utterly alien experience; or they bring out the extraordinary details in everyday experience, making your story unique. Sometimes, they do both.

2. A good memoir is about discovery – for you, the writer, AND for your readers.

It’s okay to start writing your memoir without knowing exactly where it will go. In fact, that’s a good thing. The very best memoirs leave room for discovery, and let the reader in on that process.

As you write, keep on asking yourself ‘why?’ Why did these events unfold in the way they did? Why did people react as they did? Why did your relationships thrive and fail? Ask it about the big things and the small. And allow the answers to change the way you see the past as you go. Let conflicting answers stand alongside each other, if there’s no definitive truth. (There’s often not one. For example, ask your family members to tell their version of any iconic story from your shared past, and you’re bound to find various versions, each with their own validity.)

Let discovery be your friend, and make your writing richer.

3. Choose a theme for your book – a memoir is about an aspect of your life, not your whole life story. That theme will guide what you put in and what you leave out.

This seems obvious; of course you’ll have found a theme for your memoir! It might be about your family’s emigration to Australia from South America. Or your first marriage that was difficult. Or, as was the case for me: your son’s diagnosis with Asperger’s Syndrome.

But what are your sub-themes? What aspect of that broader story are you planning to explore? This may become clearer as you start to write, or to map out your book.

I realised my book was also about not fitting in as a mother (and feeling ashamed of it), just as my son struggled to fit into the schoolyard. It was about families that didn’t look the way that they were expected to (if you took television or tradition as your example) and becoming okay with being different.

Discovering these threads guided the period of time my memoir covered, and what aspects of my experience I chose to include or edit out. The more you can focus your work, the stronger your voice and your message will be. Your theme provides your focus.

4. You can write about the people in your life without compromising your relationships. But it takes some careful thinking.

The most common questions I get from people who find out that I wrote a memoir about my son, and my family, are about how the people I love feel about being in my book. How did I get their permission? Did I give them the book to read? Did I give them the option to change things? Who owns those stories? To what extent should you be guided by what people will think when you write about them?

I cover these answers comprehensively (and answer individual questions) when I teach memoir. And it’s complicated. But briefly: be prepared to take risks when you write, but balance that with preserving the relationships that are really important to you. The most important questions to ask yourself is, ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen?’ and when you pinpoint that scenario, ‘could I live with that?’ If the answer is an absolute no, don’t write about it. Usually, the answers and solutions fall in the murky in-between.

You own your own stories. But you also have a responsibility not to misrepresent the truth, as you honestly perceive it, and not to reveal information or the stories of others that were given to you in confidence. Again, it’s a balancing act.

5. Good writing comes from good reading, of course.

I’ve heard people say that they don’t read other memoirs while they’re writing one, for fear of influence. But being influenced by good writing is a good thing! The best way to learn is to thoughtfully read the work of others, reflecting on what they do well and what doesn’t work. How do they use details? How do they structure their books? How do they deal with conflicting truths? Reading the work of others also helps you to avoid the trap of going over old ground, and keep in mind what you can add to the body of knowledge that’s different to what’s already out there.

Some of the memoirs I read, and loved, when I was writing mine (and feel lucky to be influenced by!) were Mary Karr’s memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional but loving and charismatic Texas family ‘The Liar’s Club and Cherry’, and her third memoir, ‘Lit’, about becoming a writer, battling alcoholism and finding redemption. I was definitely influenced by Benjamin Law’s ‘The Family Law’ for its deft emotional tone, blending humour and pathos (and damn good storytelling) and by Susan Johnson’s extraordinary memoir of struggling with early motherhood and the battle to hold onto the self ‘A Better Woman’.

Memoirs I’ve read and loved recently? Jessie Cole’s ‘Staying’ beautifully evokes growing up in a rainforest Eden with a bohemian family that includes two part-time stepsisters – and what happens when tragedy strikes, and grief distorts her world. And last year I discovered Jeannette Walls’ twenty-year-old classic ‘The Glass Castle’, a memoir that opens with a line that has the narrator sitting in a New York taxi, glancing out the window to see her mother rooting through a dumpster. I defy anyone to not be grabbed from the start! Finally, a great how-to memoir book ‘The Art of Memoirby Mary Karr is genius.

To find out more and book into Digital Memoir Intensive with Jo, click here.


About Jo Case

Jo Case is the author of 'Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s', which was shortlisted for the Russell Prize for Humour Writing in 2015. Her personal essays have been published in the anthologies 'Rebellious Daughters' (2016) and 'Mothermorphosis' (2015) and in The Age, and her fiction has been published in Best Australian Stories and The Big Issue. She has been associate editor of Kill Your Darlings and senior writer/editor at the Wheeler Centre.