Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.


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I'm overwhelmed with my memoir. The writing seems unwieldy if I try to feature every single person and all the major events. How can I handle this?

There’s a joke about the sculptor’s work that goes something like this: It’s easy; just take a block of marble and chisel away whatever isn’t part of the sculpture. The memoirist’s task is similar. Your life is that block of marble and your job is to chisel away to reveal the compelling shape. Of course, this is no simple task.

Start with a hammer and a pick, the tools that can remove large chunks at a time. Memoirs cover just part of a life. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion chronicles the year after her husband’s death, which took place when their only daughter was lying in a coma. In The Mistress’s Daughter, A.M. Holmes focuses on meeting her biological parents over thirty years after they gave her up for adoption. Isolate the facet or span of time that is compelling about your own life.

Even with focus, writing a memoir can seem unwieldy. This is where you get out the finer chisels. A writer focusing on her eating disorder during her high school years would include only the defining moments that relate to her struggle with the eating disorder. Still, don’t feel obligated to include every aspect of those moments. In describing the hospital experience when her disorder was at its most extreme, it’s not necessary to clog the narrative with all the conversations with doctors, nurses and therapists. Memoirists can compress time and omit unnecessary detail.

Though it’s a controversial practice in the genre, some memoirists even use composite characters, blending two or three people from real life into one character. Let’s go back to the writer working on a memoir about her eating disorder. The two nurses that attended to her with such compassion might be made into one character. Often, authors address this in the acknowledgments or on the copyright page by noting that for the sake of clarity, some characters have been fictionalized or combined. In fact, memoirs often have such statements, briefly addressing any general alterations.

You have to be careful with whatever liberties you do take. A memoir comes with the understanding that the author is writing about real events and sticking to the truth. But how is this truth defined? Think about it this way: That hospital stay? It may have been a defining moment in her experience when she was finally able to see herself and the reality of her disorder through a more objective lens. Having the results of a blood test come back faster than they really did doesn’t alter the emotional truth of the situation. However, turning a brief consultation with one dismissive doctor in real life into a week long ordeal in which this doctor subjected her to outright unkindness and unnecessarily painful tests in the memoir is a betrayal to the reader. You want to meet the demands of the narrative without deceiving the reader.

Shape the truth for the sake of an engaging and well-paced narrative, but stick to an honest dramatization of your experience of the events.