Despite what your junior high English teacher taught you, there are several “rules” you can safely ignore when writing a memoir. Let’s look at three of them.
Rule #1: Always Start at the Very Beginning
Many memoirists believe they must begin the story with their birth. But remember, a memoir covers just a slice of your life, perhaps the years you spent working on an oil pipeline or flying a rescue helicopter. Or, the slice may focus on pivotal points in your life, such as an important relationship or a couple of life-changing events.
That said, it’s certainly possible that the slice of life you present will include your birth. For example, if you’re writing about growing up in the foster-care system, events surrounding your birth and early childhood may be essential to your theme and story line.
But in many memoirs, descriptions of the author’s birth and childhood are not terribly important – and may be completely irrelevant.
Rule #2: Be Grammatically Perfect
One of the silliest “rules” is this one, which insists that everything you write must conform perfectly to the guidelines laid out in your junior high grammar textbook. This notion can paralyze memoir writers, and some may never get past the first sentence for fear of making an embarrassing mistake.
But we don’t speak to each other using perfect grammar, and don’t think that way. So sometimes, using partial sentences, slang, split infinitives or saying “Is that them?” instead of “Is that they?” is absolutely appropriate for your memoir, and anything else will sound stilted and false.
This is not to say that proper grammar is unimportant. But don’t let the fear of getting it wrong stand in your way, especially when writing your first draft. Pour your heart out as you tell your tale, and let the participles dangle and the infinitives split as they may. You can always go back later to work on the grammar, or hire an editor to do it for you.
Rule #3: Always Put Your Best Foot Forward
Of all the “rules,” none contradicts the spirit of the memoir more than this one. That’s because, as a memoir writer, you must be honest – sometimes brutally so. Life isn’t always pretty, and if you try to convince your readers that yours always has been and always will be wonderful, they probably won’t believe you.
Remember, you’re not writing a memoir to win a popularity contest or convince your readers that you’re perfect. Instead, you’re sharing your deepest thoughts and feelings so your readers will understand you, warts and all. Your struggles and obstacles are part of what shaped you: Own them. The more honest your presentation of your shortcomings and the challenges you have faced, the better.