How to Write a Good Memoir
How the book, Your Life as Story, Helped Me
Write a Better Memoir
by Barbara Brabec, author and publisher of
The Drummer Drives! Everybody Else
Rides (2010) and
Marcella's Secret Dreams and Stories: A Mother's Legacy (2017).
AS I BEGAN THE WRITING of my first memoir about my life with Harry Brabec, a
legendary Chicago Symphony percussionist and humorist, I pulled two books from
my bookshelf that Iíd purchased years earlier when I first began to think about
writing a book about something other than how to make money at home. Iíve often
written about the power of the right book at the right timeóhow one book,
On Writing Well, led me into a writing
career, and how others have been a help and encouragement
to me as I moved in
new directions through the years (such as
Looking at Your Life in an
Exciting New Way).
Sometimes we have to read a book or watch a movie a second time because
we just werenít ready for its message the first time around. We may have been
too young, or perhaps the timing was just wrong. In this particular case, my
life was very complicated and overflowing with life responsibilities in 1997
when I first read Tristine Rainerís book,
Your Life as Story—Discovering the "New
Autobiography" and Writing Memoir as Literature. All I could do then
was dream about this kind of writing and shelve the book for a later time.
By the time I re-read this book again, twelve years later, I had already written the first dozen chapters
of my first memoir and was feeling satisfied with my writing to that point.
But I was
also beginning to wonder if I was going about this memoir-writing business in
the right way. Fortunately, I always highlight or underline things in a book so
I can go back later and quickly find the parts applicable to my needs. In this
case, the following sections I had highlighted earlier in Rainer's remarkable book
not only confirmed I
was on the right track, but that I also had some options here that I hadn't
understood before. After writing business
books all my life, I certainly knew how to structure that kind of book, but when
one is writing memoir, different writing strategies come into play, and understanding them before you start can make a huge difference in the quality of
the memoir you'll eventually write.
Great Tips from the book, Your Life as Story
First, I learned I was writing a memoir for the right reasons. Many were
given in this book, but here are the three that spoke to me where my
memoir-in-progress was concerned (and may speak to you as well):
You want to relive and relish the best years of your life;
You know that the only thing that death cannot destroy is memory, and you
wish to preserve from forgetfulness those you have loved;
As a bird must sing, itís your human nature to tell your story.
In the chapter, "A Story Depends Upon How You Slice it," I learned that there
are three basic ways to tell a story. Harry, who was known for his love of food
and good sandwiches in particular, would have loved the analogies here:
1. The Submarine Sandwich, in which you are asked to imagine your life as a
continuous line from birth to the present.
2. The Single Slice, which is used for most celebrity and familial
autobiographies. (Rainer says this is where you cut "a single period of time out
of your life as you would choose a slice out of a long strudel. You get to pick
the very best pieces, whether itís right in the middle or near either end.")
3. The Embroidery Thread, where you select as your story "only the particular
hours, days, months, or years that belong to the theme and dramatic line of your
story. You skip over months, years, and even decades that bear no relevance to
that particular story."
It was at this point in reading this book that I realized that, without
knowing it, I had chosen The Single Slice method (that period of my life with
Harry in the 1960s and 1970s) with the music business being the "embroidery
thread" that was tying all my stories together. But as the book progressed, I
found that my sandwich was getting bigger and the "embroidery thread" was
getting longer. At that point, I was no longer writing a simple memoir, but a
biography of the life of one of the most outstanding musicians of his time and a
partial autobiography of my own life. (See end of article for more about this.)
Rainerís insightful book also confirmed something I had somehow instinctively
known at the beginning—that I didnít have to tell my story in chronological
order, but could have the freedom to move through time as I wished. "Like the novelist," she says, "you can play with time, stretch it and condense it,
jump over years that are irrelevant to your story, then slow down to delve for a
dozen pages into a scene that in life took only five minutes."
As my book progressed, I took
Rainerís advice and found the "formula" that worked perfectly for my memoir. Instead of telling my music tale year by year as it happened,
I opted for chapters that focused on the kind of music or activities in which
Harry was engaged at different stages of his life, often covering a span of
years in a single chapter or skipping periods of time that were irrelevant to my
story, and sometimes flashing back or forward to make a point or tell a story
within the story.
A Few Words about Memory
In chapter seven of Rainerís inspirational book, "Tricks Memory Plays on You
and Tricks You Can Play on It," I was reminded of how our past is altered both
by time and the way we remember it:
"The past is gone; all we have of it is our memories, and they are
not only faded, they also change shape depending upon both our position
in time and the lens through which we look."
Fortunately for the reader, my memoir was not built on fuzzy memories but on
a wealth of written documentation in both Harryís letters and scrapbooks as well as
my own lifetime of letters, journals, and scrapbooks. What I found curious
during the writing process, however, was how my memory of certain incidents and people differed from what I
had so carefully documented in writing decades earlier. I had not only
forgotten many details that I had colorfully captured in writing at the time
they happened, but had also lost the memory of how some incidents were
directly connected to others. Thanks to having documented so much of my life and
Harry's in writing, I was able to connect a lot of dots, which resulted in
many "Aha! moments" and some stunning surprises as well, all of which
became part of the story I was writing.
In Chapter 17 of Rainerís book, titled "Anatomy of a Scene," I found a
paragraph that perfectly described the way I was trying to write the memoir
about my drummer husband, one beat at a time:
"In autobiographic narrative, the basic unit of development is the
beat, not the paragraph. So you have chapters, scenes, and within
the scenes, beats. Each beat is a micro-realization of your state of
awareness, of your feelings and thoughts, which evolve beat by beat by
In an earlier chapter of the book, Rainer reminds writers that a story "is
supposed to be the embodiment of a human truth that we finally understand at the
end." Basically, she says, "you donít have a story unless it has a meaning. Your
story needs to make a point and you need to have a reason for telling the story.
A good story will have a dramatic beginning, middle, and conclusion, and the
conclusion is actually where you need to begin when youíre creating a
preliminary structure for your book."
I well remember the day when I knew what the last line of the last
chapter would be and how I was going to get to that point. I whooped for joy
because I knew this was exactly the right note on which I wanted to end—a
humorous quip of Harryís that put the exclamation point (Harryís favorite
punctuation mark) on the last paragraphs of the book.
What I didnít realize at
the time I read Rainer's book was that my original single-slice approach to the book
wasn't going to be big enough for what I eventually wanted to accomplish in it.
As any seasoned writer will confirm, books have a way of taking over once begun.
About a third of the way into the book, I was literally compelled to change directions and turn
what began as a simple memoir into the story of Harry's life, which meant the
book also had to be a partial autobiography of my own since I had shared nearly 44
years of my life with him. It was then that I also realized I couldn't just talk
about all the good times we'd had, but had to speak of the sad times as well. After
all, I reasoned, no oneís life is all a bed of roses, and no individual is
without flaws, so my writing would not have been honest and my story wouldn't
have been believable if Iíd written about
only the good times or painted Harry as being a man without flaws.
One sentence in a section of Rainer's book titled "Relationship Stepping Stones"
rang a poignant bell for me: "Be aware that a relationship may continue to
develop when you no longer have physical proximity with the person. Even after
someone has died, your relationship evolves."
At the time I read that sentence, I had no idea just how much my relationship
with Harry would evolve during the writing of my memoir. Before Harry died, I
thought I knew him like a book, but by the time Iíd gotten to the last chapter of the book—where I found myself
as a widow reflecting back on all that I had learned about Harry after his death—I
finally understood for the first time why he had behaved in ways that I often
found difficult to understand at the time. Truly, he was a very complex man who
lived a very unusual life, and the final surprise to me as the author of The
Drummer Drives! Everybody Else Rides was that I was
still trying to figure him out after nearly 44 years of marriage and five years as
For more information about the book's dramatic content and my first career as a
marimbist and entertainer prior to becoming a writer and publisher,
visit this page.
UPDATE 2018: I've now published my second memoir, and biography, and
much of what I learned in the writing of my first memoir holds true for this
one. But this one is all about my relationship with my mother, which is a
totally different view of me than what I gave as the wife of Harry Brabec. And
of course I learned many things about my mother I didn't know at the start of
this book, and I've shared those things in the book itself.
For more information, visit
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