“I want you to show me what type of power they exercised over you when you were younger. I really want to experience your life early on. What I would also like to experience is the emotional pull of your writing; I want to be transported into your emotional life more. I believe that your story is fascinating and I feel like it needs to be told in more detail to be better understood and felt throughout.”
This is the feedback I got from a writer who was participating with me at a online writing workshop called, “Write Your Healing Story” back in 2012. I was at the downloading stage and trying to wade through a ton of memories.
In the process, I was trying to show what was at stake for me back in New York City in the spring of 1990. Should I stay in New York City with my estranged Mom or should I volunteer to serve in the Israel Defense Forces? That was the decision, but I would soon learn that the hardest part had yet to come: the storytelling.
All I could do was narrate scenes here and there and provide some narrative summary which included very little “show.” Clearly, I had a long way to go to show what was at stake for myself as a character.
Since 2012, my memoir has gone through multiple drafts and I’ve finally got to the core of the transformation. I’m definitely not the same writer I was going in. Here are three lessons to prove what I’ve learned so far about the memoir writing process and my story, Accidental Soldier: What My Service in the Israel Defense Forces Taught Me about Faith, Courage and Love:
1. I needed to get a firm handle of structure. Structure is a must if you’re going to write memoir – well, any genre really. Without structure, your memoir will just be a “patchwork” of loosely connected scenes. Structure is the “glue” that holds each scene together making it possible to weave “a takeaway point,” which your memoir must have if it’s going to speak to your reader.
Writing tip: If you want your memoir to read like a story, then you need to work closely with structure, which is many a writer’s enemy because the mere implications conjures up the feeling that you’re killing creativity.
2. From the very beginning, I needed the help of an editor way before publishing my memoir to help me get to the core of my story. The best support you can enlist to become a better editor of your work is to hire a editor. Every writer should have one. This can make the serious difference when it comes time to shopping for an agent. You can bet they’ll take a highly edited and polished story than an loosely edited one.
When it comes to editing, we’re talking content and development of the story line, and fleshed out characters with motivations and intentions. When my editor asks questions, she isn’t trying to be a nag, but really trying to stretch my “writerly comfort zones.” It’s a glorifying experience to be able to expand on the plot and characters and dig deep.
3. I needed to continually understand My Why Understanding your WHY or your purpose or reason for writing this memoir is probably one of the most powerful things you can do to keep yourself motivated. It’s what will keep you going when the writing days get rough. I’m not talking about the external validations like money, fame or fortune because that’s an outcome you wish to see happen. I’m talking about getting clear on your inner drive at all stages of the writing.
Here’s my WHY for writing my memoir:
I am writing my memoir to find clarity and empowerment about a certain period of time when I was largely anxious and innocent.
Here’s a scene to validate some of that anxiety that comes along with navigating a new country and especially if you’re serving in the military:
Instead of just repeating over again in my memoir about my disappointment in the fact that the IDF delayed our basic training, in the following scene, I express the problem of being sent to Shitim, which was basically a settlement in the middle of the Arava desert. I’ve bolded the voice of experience below.
Now that most of my garin members are away and I’m here, I need to express how robbed I feel by the experience. I thought I would be able to handle this sudden change but I’m still very anxious. Years later, I will come to realize that being yanked from a military environment was what made me feel anxious. I fare well under pressure.
Here, in this timeless crater, I have too much time on my hands to think. Since acquainting well to military life at Eshbal, I was counting on a similar experience to happen with basic training. Now that it will be another four months before we go to basic training, I’m shaken up, confused and unsure of how to make the best out of this situation.
Now that I’m more than halfway through the book, I can see how memoir writing requires so much “heavy-lifting” that it hurts, but the healing and writing benefits surpass any writing course or therapy. Over time, the writing muscles get better and you feel more comfortable in your story while stepping into your biggest truth.
Are you writing a memoir? If so, what do you find challenging about it?