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
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 I’d purchased years earlier when I first began to think about writing a book about something other than how to make money at home. I’ve often written about the power of the right book at the right time—how one book 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 (more about these books at the end of this article).
Sometimes we have to read a book or watch a movie a second time because we just weren’t 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 Rainer’s 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, it’s 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:
• The Submarine Sandwich, in which you are asked to imagine your life as a continuous line from birth to the present.
• 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 it’s right in the middle or near either end.”)
• 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.”
At this point in reading this book, 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.
Rainer’s insightful book also confirmed something I had somehow instinctively known at the beginning—that I didn’t 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 Rainer’s 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 Rainer’s 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 Harry’s 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 Rainer’s 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 beat.”
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 don’t 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 you’re 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 Harry’s that put the exclamation point (Harry’s favorite punctuation mark) on the last paragraphs of the book.
What I didn’t 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 one’s 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 I’d 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 I’d 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 his widow.
UPDATE 2021: After publishing my second memoir, this one about my relationship with my mother, I will only say here that I learned many things about my mother that I didn’t know at the start of this book, and I’ve shared those things in the book itself. Of course I’ve written stories about the writing of each of these memoirs to encourage others to look more closely at their life and follow my lead by writing and self-publishing a memoir of their own. (See the “Related Articles” below and links to the books that helped me so much as a memoirist.)
Currently I’m working on yet another memoir, this one totally different from the first two. It’s still about family, but this time I’m writing about the family Harry and I formed when we rescued an abandoned dog that had been running in the woods of Missouri at least six months before we found her. This book is also different in that I’m treading into new territory by trying my hand at fiction with a “dog memoir” based on the dog’s true and dramatic life story told from two points of view: the dog’s and mine. For more information, see the BOOKS page and scroll down a bit.
The Book that Changed the Direction of My Writing Life. An example of how taking just one step in a new direction can be life-changing.
Four Months on a Tank of Gas—The Secret Life of a New Memoirist [PDF]. This revealing glimpse into Barbara’s life as an author tells how her first memoir grew from the gleam of an idea to a book in hand. It also discusses the challenge of writing a personal memoir relatable to readers from all walks of life.
Knowing Someone Like a Book. How much do you know about your spouse? Barbara was astounded by some of the things she learned about Harry’s when talking with friends of his she’d never met before.
Life Writing. What has life taught you that you might write a book about? Writing a book about your life experiences will change and enrich your live in ways you cannot imagine.
Your Life as Story—Discovering the “New autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature by Tristine Rainer (Tarcher, 1998)
»» (See also Tristine Rainer’s website, which offers writer’s resources, tips on writing memoir, and blog posts.)
On Writing Well—The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser.
Writing & Publishing T/C