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Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 06, 2014 8:52 am

This week’s term is memoir, which is a kind of autobiography in miniature. More specifically, a memoir is an autobiographical writing about a part of a person’s life, rather than its entirety. In its strictest definition, a memoir sheds light on a particular period of history, but since this class is primarily on writing for the Challenge, I’m choosing to ignore that—because I can. By the way, most of these tips apply equally well to 1st person narratives, so I won’t write a separate lesson on those.

For the writing challenge, a memoir or short autobiographical writing would have to tell about a very, very tiny part of a person’s life—you just can’t do much more than that in 750 words without running the risk of simply summarizing. Here are a few pointers for writing a good memoir (in the Writing Challenge).

1. Be sure to choose a life story that will be interesting to a wide audience. We all have our own stories, and since we feature prominently in them, we naturally believe them to be fascinating. But you’d be amazed at how little your stories will actually interest most people, unless they are either a) extremely compelling stories, or b) written extremely well, or c) a situation not commonly experienced. There are some family situations that—although they may feel new and unique to us—are actually quite common. If yours is going to appeal to a wide audience, it should differ in some significant way from the similar experiences of others.

2. Resist the temptation to tell your beautiful nugget of a story, and then to summarize a big chunk of the rest of your life in the last paragraph. You don’t even really have to tell us how your story changed you, or influenced the rest of your life (although you may). Just tell your story—if you do it well, your reader will go “Ahh!” and will figure out its significance.

3. Since this is your story, you obviously know all the background, and the cast of characters. Your readers don’t, so be sure you explain things to them that seem perfectly obvious to you. Read it with a stranger’s eye, if you can, and ask yourself, would I understand this, if I didn’t know about Aunt Sherry’s kleptomania?

4. Don’t feel as if you have to include every family member, every neighbor, and every teacher you ever had. Keep the characters to a minimum, and if necessary, combine minor characters to create composites who will keep the narrative clipping along.

5. A testimony is a specialized kind of memoir, and this is a great place for a testimony. It’s my preference that you not end even a testimony with an address to the reader: Have you decided what to do with the One who can save you from life’s hurricanes…? Again, if you’ve told your testimony well, you will inspire your reader. You don’t have to then preach at her.

6. Memoirs are written in 1st person, and almost always in past tense. Sometimes when we tell a story aloud, we slip into a casual present tense (I walk up to Mrs. Ackerson and say, “Hey lady, that’s my cat you’re holding). But stay in the past tense with your memoir—which, after all, happened in the past.

7. Go ahead and include dialogue, as if you were writing a piece of fiction. Dialogue really moves a story along, and also attracts readers’ eyes more than solid blocks of text do. Don’t worry if you can’t re-create the dialogue verbatim. No one will be able to go back and check on your accuracy. If you’re true to the spirit of the event, that’s just fine.

8. Be very, very careful that the people in your memoir will not be upset to have their story written. Even if names are changed and certain details are disguised, they will recognize their story, even if no one else in the world does. It has happened more than once that I know of here at FaithWriters that family members have been quite upset to appear in a public piece of writing.

9. Finally, as with any writing, use all of the tools that make writing good. Hook your reader in the beginning. Use salsa words, not rice cake words. Keep your writing snappy and concise. Make your characters feel real and unique by giving them well-rounded personalities, quirks, and authentic dialogue. Move it along. Put a kicker at the end.

Homework: Write 150 words, either an ultra-short memoir, or the first paragraph of a longer one. Keep in mind the 9 points in the body of this lesson. (Were any of those tricky for you?)

OR tell about any memoir writing you’ve done, either for the Challenge or not, and any particular challenges it presents. Provide a link, if you’ve got one.

OR, follow-up with a question or comment specifically about 1st person narrative, and how it differs from memoir.

As always, I welcome ideas for future lessons.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby glorybee » Sat Sep 06, 2014 10:45 am

I've got very few examples of 1st person narrative in my own WC entries, but here are the links to a few of them. Notice that I break a few of my own "rules."

Shattered
Rule broken: Not written in past tense

Lord Love a Duck Rule broken: Terrible first paragraph

Thanksgiving Afternoon With the Queen of Scrabble This one doesn't really break any rules: it actually happened, although I changed everyone's names.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby CatLin » Sat Sep 06, 2014 8:28 pm

When I first joined FaithWriters, the Challenge (and main reason I joined) was on break, and after reading everything in the FAQ's and making myself home on the main site and especially the boards, I started writing. My mom had just died, and two of those first "stories" back in 2006 were shortish, kinda-memoirs with my mom at the center.

"The Legacy" I edited and tweaked many times, and have four versions - a first person memior/tribute - one in present and one in past tense, and a second person with fake names in both present and past tenses. I think it may be too mom-centered to be a memoir but I'm not sure. I failed at #1 on your list I'm sure. The version I posted in the general submissions is the 2nd person present. 2 more rules broken. :)

Beauty is Fleeting didn't get its title until I wrote the ending. The first drafts are called "Hair Memories." lol. And I broke #2 on this one big time. :)

Great lesson Jan. Thank you!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby glorybee » Sun Sep 07, 2014 8:14 am

CatLin wrote:
Beauty is Fleeting didn't get its title until I wrote the ending. The first drafts are called "Hair Memories." lol. And I broke #2 on this one big time. :)



Love the title of this one, Cat, and I also love your voice. And don't worry about #2--it's more of a suggestion than a rule.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby RachelM » Mon Sep 08, 2014 1:36 am

I'm not sure if this would count as a memoir--now that I've written it out and edited it down to 150 words! :D It's focusing on two separate incidents, but they are linked by chocolate. :wink:

There wasn't any room for dialogue, but I tried to keep in mind the other points.
~~~~~~

Chocolate calls to me. I was nine when I first heard it. It was Christmas Eve, and I had a wrapped box of chocolates under the bed for my dad. I tossed for hours, trying to resist, but in the end I ate every one of my tormentors.

It wasn’t the last time that chocolate made a fool of me. Within a year my little sister brought me a chocolate bar. The kid was three and I knew she had gotten that chocolate from somewhere off limits. I paid for that one. Turns out the chocolate was a laxative. Nobody bothered punishing me; instead they bring it up at every family gathering.

In the end, though, I won. I learned how to quiet the pesky chocolate. We have a freezer in a shed at the end of our driveway where I keep my chocolate. I can barely hear it now.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby glorybee » Mon Sep 08, 2014 8:57 am

Rachel, that was charming! Well done!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby CatLin » Mon Sep 08, 2014 6:03 pm

Love your mini-memoir, Rachel. You cracked me up. :D
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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby GeraldShuler » Tue Sep 09, 2014 5:39 pm

The best example I found from my challenge entries was The Great American Cookie Heist http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=23009 It was all memoir except for the treehouse... that was only something my brother and I would have loved to have, but didn't.
I also wrote one that I reluctantly share because it starts with my attempt to sound like Edgar Allen Poe. A lot of people wrote comments that they weren't even going to read it because it started so darkly, so skip the first paragraph.
Vulture Feast http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=22478

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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby glorybee » Tue Sep 09, 2014 8:30 pm

Gerald, thanks for sharing both of these. They really demonstrate that 1st person narratives can cover all moods and emotions.

On the second one, I see that I commented that I wasn't sure about the ending. On re-reading this, I've decided that I really do like the ending. It's sort of "meta"--quite literary.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby pheeweed » Wed Sep 10, 2014 4:13 pm

I think I'm going to print out this lesson and post it by my computer. I had a similar experience to Cat's. After my son had leukemia, I tried writing about it many times, in many different ways. Most of them aren't worth reading. But I finally found my voice, through the challenge, and after revising it, I also submitted it to the first testimony book. I wish I could do this with all my writing. Maybe I just need to write each piece a hundred different ways.

http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article-level4-previous.php?id=44390
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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby glorybee » Wed Sep 10, 2014 4:34 pm

Phee, thanks for sharing this! Your use of repetition ("The blessing...") is very effective in this piece.

When I joined FaithWriters in 2005, I had the intention of using it as an outlet for expression my feelings after my daughter's severe injury. And in the first year or so that I was here, I wrote several different pieces about it--somewhere between 5 and 10, all in different styles and genres. Writing is just a wonderful way to work through the things life throws at us, isn't it?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby glorybee » Thu Oct 02, 2014 8:56 am

Just bumping this topic up a bit, since "Autobiography" is the current Writing Challenge.

Got any questions?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby Vonnie » Thu Oct 02, 2014 2:20 pm

The truth is no one really cares about my life, they are only interested if it can make their life better in some way. So how do you come up with something to interest others? Can you appeal to the emotions, like laughter for instance? My life is not what you would call normal, but who cares, right? I always wondered why anyone would write memoirs unless they had been famous in some aspect.
God bless! LaVonne

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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby Milly Born » Thu Oct 02, 2014 3:08 pm

I always wondered why anyone would write memoirs unless they had been famous in some aspect.


LaVonne, may I give you one of the reasons why your story matters? Other people's written testimonies--memoirs, if you want--have been very important for me coming to faith. They weren't famous at all, but that fact only added to their credibility.

Don't underestimate the power of your own story. Can't wait to read your entry in this week's challenge!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--MEMOIR AND 1ST PERSON NARRATIVE

Postby glorybee » Thu Oct 02, 2014 3:13 pm

Vonnie wrote:The truth is no one really cares about my life, they are only interested if it can make their life better in some way. So how do you come up with something to interest others? Can you appeal to the emotions, like laughter for instance? My life is not what you would call normal, but who cares, right? I always wondered why anyone would write memoirs unless they had been famous in some aspect.
God bless! LaVonne


I've got to disagree with the first part of your statement! People are social by nature, and things that have happened to people just like them (not famous folks) are inherently interesting. It's why I advise devotional writers to include personal anecdotes.

And yes, appealing to humor is a great way to do this. I fear that this week's judges will be reading an awful lot of tragic stories; they're certainly welcome the ones with humor.

At any rate, since you only have 750 words, you won't have space enough to tell your whole life story, famous or not. Choose one humorous or lovely or grace-filled instance (or a tragic one), and tell it as if your were telling a new friend.

We all care!
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