Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Entry-Level Thoughts on Writing a Memoir

As my memoir slowly enters its West Point years, its readership has increased dramatically, especially among my Academy classmates.  That’s a good thing.  I wrote the book for a lot of reasons, but one of the more outward-thinking ones was as a way to discuss the idea of writing about experiences with some of my friends.  As our current class president said a few years ago, “Classes get remembered when they tell their stories.”  Our class has done a few things.  We therefore have to find ways to tell the story.
I've been using this as a cover-image for #SBRLLR.  It's fine for online
applications, but if there's ever a print edition, I'll have to figure something else out.

My own story is decidedly offbeat for a West Point memoir.  Most of the great Academy memoirs are stories of combat.  However, I personally left the Army before the wars started in earnest, and in any event, I wanted to write a sports book.  For better or worse, I’ve understood most of my life through the lens of sport, so that approach made sense.  I don’t know what will work for others, nor do I think it’s necessarily my place to make those suggestions.  I know what I did and why, and I know what I think worked and what didn’t.  
The standard has been set.
Memoir is the iconic literary form of the U.S. Military Academy.  Because a lot of Academy grads go on to positions of great leadership, yes, making their stories important parts of the national social framework.  But also because the Academy teaches its graduates to look unflinchingly at their own failings and to be honest about them, and I don’t know how prevalent that sort of thing is in other parts of society.  When your default response to failure is, “No excuse, sir!” you have to be a little more diligent about the after action review process.  Over time, this makes one tend towards self-reflection, and here we are.  
The standard was set by West Point’s first President, U.S. Grant, who was famously honest and straightforward in what is arguably the best memoir in the English language.  The rest of us must now try to live up to that standard.  At least part of the reason I wanted to write my own memoir was as a test against his single, iconic achievement.
The following are my own thoughts on writing, especially memoir writing.  A lot of what’s true about storytelling in general is true about writing a memoir.
Memoirs may teach a little around the edges, but mostly they are meant to entertain.  I personally got a lot out of writing about my own experiences.  I learned a few things about my life that I’d not previously realized just through the process of telling the story as it happened, hopefully without judgement or editorializing.  But that’s me.  That’s my process as a writer.  Other people have simply enjoyed reminiscing about things they remember or learning a bit about the sport of swimming or about my personal journey because they know and like me.  No one’s trying to take life lessons except by accident, nor do they necessarily need to be.  For this reason, a lot of the techniques that work in fiction also apply to memoir, which is in turn why I decided to write this piece about shaping the narrative.
First you have to engage your readers.
Scene & Sequel Structure
Alas, my own writing tends to break a few too many of the rules with a bit too much regularity to have a lot of mass-market appeal.  I could probably fix it with an editor’s help, but I’ve never gone that way with it, nor am I going to.  Especially not with this particular story.  Nonetheless, my writing is basically readable because I’m good with scene structure.
Scenes have a fundamental design, the use of which has the tendency to draw readers into a story.  This is of particular importance to West Pointers because we are trained to think in terms of structure and formula from our earliest days.  OPORDs have a structure.  Legal arguments have a structure.  And scenes, whether they are fact or fictional, must also have a structure.
Once you know the structure, you can plug-and-chug to design your scenes.
Basically, a character wants something, runs into obstacles, and then disaster strikes.  The reader is hooked because he/she wants to see how the hero is going to get out of the jam.  What’s important from the writer’s perspective is that the hero can’t often get what he/she wants.  Any story is the story of overcoming struggle; the greater the hardship and suffering, the greater the eventual triumph.
You can link multiple scenes together, but eventually you will need to link them with something called a sequel, which is exactly what it sounds like, a narrative device linking two scenes in order to set up the next part of the story.  Structurally, a sequel is a brief review of the situation, followed by decision on a new way forward.  This then sets up the next scene.
Consider the following scene:
Luke wants to get to the Millenium Falcon.  He has to save the princess!  But there are stormtroopers, and then the bridge is out, and then Han and Chewie run off in the other direction.  Luke and Leia finally make it to the landing bay, but then Luke turns just in time to see Obi Wan Kenobi die!!!
 -- Luke wants something, i.e. to get to the Falcon.
 -- He wants it passionately.  He has to save the princess.
 -- Obstacles: stormtroopers, bridge, Han & Chewie leaving.
 -- Disaster: Obi Wan dies.
Scene & Sequel
Obi Wan is dead.  Vader killed him.  Luke has spent his entire useless life on the backwater wasteland of Tatooine, and now the only reason he won’t die there lies dead at the feet of a monster.
Luke comes to a decision.  He must kill Darth Vader.
-- Summary: All of that stuff is what’s happened up to this point in the movie.
-- Decision: This is what drives us into the next scene.  We can’t wait to see how this is going to play itself out.  That’s the point of using this structure.
My favorite book on this topic is Jack M. Bickham’s Scene & Structure (Elements of Fiction Writing).  If you’re gonna write a memoir, do yourself a favor and read through it before you start.  Or at least before you go through the editing process.
Finite Time Period
The difference between a memoir and an autobiography is the amount of time covered.  The rule of thumb is that if you’re not an actual rock star, no one will want to read your complete autobiography.  Thus, a memoir is more limited in scope.  It has a definite start and a definite end, and it covers a relatively short amount of time.
This is where I got jammed up.  I decided to try to write a memoir about my swimming and triathlon careers, and although I had an actual reason for wanting to do it that way, the time horizon was too big.  I tried to compensate by keeping the focus narrow and telling my story through a series of limited, linked anecdotes, but it’s still totally unmarketable.  There are too many long stretches between scenes because of the sheer scope of the time involved.
Don’t do that if you want your memoir to appeal to more than just a few of your friends and acquaintances.  
Showing versus Telling
The reason that the literary guys want you to keep the scope of your memoir short is that they want you to show the events through scene and sequel structure.  Keep your story immediate and real.  Use dialogue in your scenes, even if you have to fabricate conversations that could have happened in order to give a point some scene structure.  A memoir isn’t necessarily a piece of the historical record; it’s first job is to entertain.
I mostly find myself fabricating real conversations when I can’t remember details verbatim.  I’ve also edited at times to change emphasis of events in order to make scene and sequel structure more pronounced or just to emphasize the emotional impact of events that occured.  In any event, my memoir is at its best when we’re living life as it happened.  It’s less good when I’m trying to summarize large swaths of time that aren’t immediately germaine to the points at hand.
Just Tell the Story
This one was from my friend Elizabeth.  She said, “Don’t editorialize, and don’t tell us what it means.  Just tell us what happened and let the events speak for themselves.”
It’s tough because the tendency is to teach through experience, or maybe to explain or defend our actions.  It also requires a certain amount of trust in your readers, which I personally find quite difficult as well.  But it’s story death.  It makes your memoir unreadable, and it breaks up your scene structure.  Readers want to live the moments with you and then figure things out for themselves.
Also: if part of the purpose of a memoir is self-reflection, then this is where that actually begins.  Speaking personally, there were some things in my own life that I’d never allowed myself to consider.  But when I tried to just tell the story as it happened, I realized some realities were undeniable.  I’d been holding on to guilt over things that, if they’d happened to somebody else, I’d have brushed off in a heartbeat.  I finally let go of a lot of that shit largely through the rewriting process.
That said, this process of just telling the story is probably where I personally most need an editor.  I find it incredibly difficult.
Story Structure
Just as there’s a way to design scenes, there’s also a way to design stories.  Actually, there are bunches of ways.  I tend to use an ABCDE structure, though the order of elements is not particularly important.  In fact, I reversed B and C in my memoir on purpose.
A - Open on Action.  This is the scene with my first swim practice, put in because it was immediate and because I hoped it would lead into the rest of the Conflict.
B - Background.  This is the front half of Chapter 3.  A good goal is to keep it short.  Getting bogged down in background is a bad idea.
C - Conflict.  Conflict may develop over time, but you still need a point, usually fairly early, in which you lay out your character’s goals.  I tried to do this in Chapter 1, but I’ve no idea how well it came off.
D - Development.  This is where things get worse.  Obstacles come up, or in my memoir, I often get to a new level of competition and find that the world is a lot harder and tougher than I thought it would be.  I’ve tried to be honest about my own shortcomings because, let’s be honest, it makes for a more readable narrative.  For example, overconfidence is a consistent theme, and I use it to Develop the story quite a bit.
E - Ending.  People get really wrapped around the axle about endings, but really, if you’ve built your structure correctly, then when you finally let your characters succeed without disaster, it goes off like fireworks.  In my memoir, the ending feels like a magic trick: Ta da! This is why I just told you this story.
That’s all I’ve got.  Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions.

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