From Autobiography to Memoir


So, what about that book you were ghostwriting?  I hear that a lot from friends I haven’t seen in a while. After all, it’s been three years. And it’s true that at times I feel like I’ve been sucked into a black, bottomless hole, or tossed upon some steep Sisyphean slope the peak of which I will never reach. Then again, what did I expect? It’s a book not a sandwich. A book doesn’t have a clear blueprint, or at least if it does (an outline), it is one that has the unnerving habit of morphing even while you are adhering to it fanatically.

The Decision to Jump the Genre Track

I punched out the first version of the book in a year. It was a straightforward life story beginning in childhood and ending with the author’s retirement and reflections on his life and career. I had, as William Zinsser put it in his acclaimed guide, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, imposed “narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events.” Several readers responded favorably, but these were mostly swayed by their fondness for either the author or myself. Then something happened to change our trajectory. (Long and complicated story there, one I wrote about in July.) Brakes were applied to the publishing schedule. Acting on the suggestions of a professional publicist and editor, my client and I pulled back to explore a more commercial version of the story in the form of a medical memoir.

Steps to a Genre Metamorphosis

At that time, I think I had some vague notion that I would be able to simply cut and paste my first autobiographical version into a cohesive new memoir. How wrong I was. What was needed was a complete overhaul. I would have to jettison parts of the book I (and more importantly my client) had loved, and if anecdotes or scenes did not support the memoir, out they would have to go. Following are the steps I have taken these last months in the process of transforming a life story to memoir.

  • Book-ending the narrative: A crucial distinction between an autobiography and a memoir is focus. According to Zinsser, a classic memoir recalls “a particular period and place in the writer’s life.” It is “a work of history, catching a distinctive moment in the life of both a person and a society.” Accordingly, I had to identify new starting and ending points to my story. This being a medical memoir, I would focus on the years my client worked at the top of his field, building the new narrative within strict bookends from the time his reputation took off to his retirement. While I didn’t want to completely abandon important events and key experiences that took place in his childhood or training, I had to find a way to incorporate them through flashback within the new truncated time frame.
  • Building a new chapter sequence: With a clear start and end point, I now went back to the original chapter sequence, pulling out the chapters that took place during this span, and using them to anchor the new narrative arc. Scrivener was helpful in this endeavor, allowing me to easily build the new structure by first importing all the chapters from the original manuscript into the binder of a new project, and then selecting from them to build a new sequence. However, since my client’s childhood and training had taken up nearly half the original book, I was left with only a dozen or so chapters that fit in the new time frame revolving around his career.
  • Identifying events in existing chapters from which to build new chapters: Now I had to explore the chapters that dealt with his career and identify material that I had given less importance to that could be the basis of complete new chapters. This has been tough but edifying . An author makes so many choices focusing on one anecdote here, eliminating another there. Guiding my search was of course the strictures of the medical theme. However, I had to be careful not to settle for “fluff,” minor episodes that did not have enough meat to expand into a real chapter but that I was tempted to use out of desperation to replace chapters I had dumped.
  • Integrating earlier key events through flashback:  A real challenge has been how to retain some really dramatic scenes that on the surface did not directly support the new focus. I could integrate key childhood experiences through flashbacks but only when they supported or related to something that was happening in the new present of the story. The flashback must also be triggered by something happening in the present; there had to be a reason the author reflected on his past when he did. While a number of acclaimed memoirs have served as a good model, I found myself dipping time and again into Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, to see how she accomplished such a seamless shift from the present (the hike on the Pacific Crest Trail) to various points in her past that pertained to and illuminated her struggle.
  • Identifying high and low points: This exercise was one of the first tasks the editor gave me, but it has turned out to be the cornerstone of my approach. Scanning the original manuscript (and working from memory) I created a table with two lists, one the high points/successes in my client’s life and the other the low points/failures/challenges. These I put in chronological order, then referred back to them as I built my new chapter sequence. Those that fit in the main narrative became, in many cases, the basis for a chapter. Those from earlier periods of his life could be included as flashbacks interspersed around the main action. The challenges in particular—and how the author dealt with them—reveal character and motivation, while the successes allow for a release from tension and provide variety and movement to the narration.

A Memoir Takes Form

This process has been slow and sometimes frustrating. Working with so much material (97,000 words in the original manuscript, as well as two dozen audio recordings) often feels like wading around in a flood grasping at flotsam as it floats by. And while I did get a good start on transforming the book into a memoir using the steps above, it was when my editor suggested I hold off on actually doing the rewrite and create a book proposal instead that the new book began to emerge in more clarity. I will be blogging about how creating a proposal expedites the actual writing of a book in an upcoming post.



8 thoughts on “From Autobiography to Memoir

  1. Hi Jeanne, this is so helpful me as I have completed the first draft of my memoir and beginning the first round of edits on approx 100,000 words. All in Word, all seperate chapters at the moment (and thank you for the reminder of Scrivener).
    I am fascinated that writing the book proposal expidites the writing process and very much look forward to reading your thoughts about that. I can understand that though, as it wasn’t until I wrote a synopsis for my memoir almost 3 years ago, chapter by chapter, that I realised I had a book to write in the first place. It was part of my then writing course. Writing that got me on the road, although I have changed several chapters, I’ve stuck to that original outline more or less.
    I just reviewed Mary Karr’s ‘The Art of Memoir’ a couple of weeks ago on my blog and watched ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed but want to read her book next. I have brought in some flashbacks to my story (which takes place over three years, 1978 – 1981) but wonder if I have constructed them properly. I have yet to do a complete read through on the complete MS!
    It’s wonderful to share the process with you as we both journey on towards memoir completion 🙂

    1. Great to hear from you Sherri! Congratulations on competing a first draft!! Sounds like you got off to the right start on your memoir by “book-ending” it with clear beginning and ending dates. And with 100,000 words you’ve got plenty to work with. I didn’t go into it in this post, and I should have, but another big element that was missing in the life story was dialogue. As I rewrite the chapters now that pertain to the period I am focusing on, I have to better envision them as dramatic scenes and create compelling dialogue. That is a huge challenge when you are ghostwriting: capturing the way the “author” of the book expresses himself and also constructing dialogue from characters he engages with, and this from his very sketchy memories of conversations. When you are writing your own memoir, it’s still not easy to write effective dialogue, but at least you have a more secure starting place.
      As for flashbacks, well as I wrote in the post, I think it is so important to consider the placement within the larger narrative, and to think about how they reveal something important about the narrator (you). Also, what is triggering that memory? If you do pick up CS’s Wild, I think you will agree with me that she does this so skillfully, you are never jarred by the change in scene…then she brings you right back to the main story, without missing a beat.
      As for May Karr, I loved your review of her new book and look forward to reading it. I’d love to see some of your WIP too. Our experiences are such mirror images…LA and England…aren’t we fortunate to have experienced life in both places?!

  2. Interesting to read your process Jeanne. A book you might be interested in reading is The Art of time in Memoir by I think Steve Birketts. He makes a good case for the utilisation of time being the factor that makes the difference between an average memoir to a brilliant memoir. Then of course you have those that argue for high definition scene and dialogue. Dialogue for me is something I believe (others might not) I do well but I would imagine in your case you would have to listen to your client talking a lot to work out how his speech sounds and then immerse yourself in the medical setting or conditions that you are writing about. Gutkind does a bit on immersion and it is a great read also with a section devoted to how to make the writing of it compelling. His book is called You Can’t make this stuff up: the complete guide to writing creative nonfiction from memoir to literary journalism and everything in between.
    As a ghost writer I am presuming there is no recognition for your work in the writing of the memoir? How do you feel about that?
    I look forward to your post on the proposal. Your approach is totally different to my approach and I doubt that it would work for me but I love reading about it.

  3. Thanks for the resource recommendations Irene and the comments. I will check both of those books out. I think I’ve heard of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, and I am interested in other non-fiction genres so that will be interesting to see what the author feels are the commonalities among forms. That is, what the essential tools are to get to the “compelling” stage.
    When I started out writing the first version of my client’s story, I read lots of how-to-write-a-memoir books. I have a good list on my old blog Memoir Crafter, as well as general guides to good writing. William Zinsser is one of my go-to gurus, and Stephen King can’t be beat when it comes to combining his own short memoir, in the first half of the book, with straightforward tips in the second half. He throws in an example of his own edits on a short story, which is eye-opening and drives his points home. There are others who stand out too: Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art was great, as was Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft. But you’re right. There are so many models for how to structure the story, from LeGuin’s “crowding (vivid, exact, dense detail) and leaping (what you jump over, being selective)” to conceptualizing scenes as islands to Barrington’s “scene, summary, and musing.” I have even studied a book aimed primarily at Screenwriters, Robert McKee’s brilliant Story, for guidance on how to create scenes, down to the beats and the way a scene has to show some change or movement in a value that is being exhibited (honesty, faith, whatever.) It’s trying to incorporate all this, though, that is the tough part!
    And yes, being a ghostwriter is a challenge. I really had to work on getting my own voice out of the story, though I still struggle with it. What do you do when the “author’ relies on words like “interesting” or “nice” to describe events or people??? Argghhhh. But I use Audionote to record all our interviews, so I can go back and pull things out verbatim.
    As for being credited, well my client likes the “as told to” or “with” approach, so at this point it looks like I will get my name in print. Then again, I just have to hope the writing doesn’t get slammed!
    Now I am very curious about your approach to writing memoir. Have you blogged about it? Hope to hear about it. And thanks again for stopping by!

  4. Hi again Jeanne,
    Oh I could chat with you and Irene all day about memoir! I read your replies and Irene’s comment with great interest. I realise too I didn’t properly express that my memoir is a story I’ve had burning within me for over 30 years but it wasn’t until I wrote the synopsis, chapter by chapter, that I realised that I could actually turn it into a book, up to then being nothing more than a dreamy ambition because I didn’t dare call myself a writer. In fact, I didn’t think I could do it! Getting that synopsis down made me see that I could do this, or at least give it my best shot! Great points you both make about dialogue and how difficult for you, I agree, being a ghostwriter! I started off writing dialogue in the way I imagined it would have been back then, and was glad to read in Karr’s book that by building up trust between us (the narrator) and the reader, they will understand that we can’t possibly write it verbatim. And yes, she also talks about the way Strayed ‘seamlessly’ weaves between the past and the present, quite something to master. I would be honoured to show you some of my WIP – when it is of showable form! I’ve just printed off the first 20 chapters, merging the Word 2003 into Word 2013 and it is a hot mess, yikes! Now that I’ve written the first draft, I can see that I want to completely change the beginning which essentially means cutting a lot out. I wasn’t expecting that by having the whole story written down at last that that would happen. I’m such a newbie at all this!! I am questioning whether or not I’ve brought the time and place to life as I mean to, and when I can face doing my first read through and edit of my ‘hot mess’, I’ll be bracing myself 😉 And yes, it is wonderful to be able to share those similar experiences of life in Los Angeles and England…especially as both feature heavily in my memoir! Thank you so much for your kind words and encouragement. Finally, I’m very pleased to read in answer to Irene’s question that credit will be given to you with your book, very happy about that for you. Great chatting with you Jeanne…and now over to your next post…

    1. Hi Sherri. Good to continue the conversation. And congratulations for navigating one of the first real challenges in producing a narrative with staying power: lopping off what an editor friend of mine (Sakura) calls “clearing the throat”–those long first paragraphs or pages or even chapters before you get to the real beginning of the story. Knowing where to start is perhaps the hardest part of writing any narrative, but it is so crucial. And interesting to note that you also found the chapter synopsis exercise useful, if not critical. I have a couple of unfinished memoir drafts that I have been working on for years. I started both of them spontaneously, the way one journals. I don’t know if I will ever get back to them, but I see now how ineffective they are…and way too much “tell” instead of show. Ans wow! you have a first draft. Now the real fun begins :-/ The editing phase is painful sometimes, and frustrating, but when something clicks it is so energizing. Good news is that now you have all that wonderful material there, waiting for your art to bring form and meaning to it. happily, others have traveled that route and we can learn from them! Lastly about dialogue, I was never happier than when learning that it’s not about verbatim recording of a character’s words but what you want to convey about that character or his/her relationships or motivations that matters in dialogue. It’s important to capture the voice, but there is so much more to it. I am looking forward to getting updates on your progress and seeing select passages should you feel like sharing.

  5. Such a process! But then again, so is historical fiction. Wading around in a flood is an apt description for revision. I’m discovering, too that setting projects aside actually makes them more approachable. Wow. Reading your conversation with Sherri and Irene, I’m thinking the three of you need to host an online memoir workshop!

    1. Now there’s an idea. Another writer friend of mine is exploring the webinar platform. A memoir workshop/webinar sounds like a a future project to keep in mind. As for historical fiction, I have another project on the back burner….still in the gathering information phase….but love that genre and its cousin alternative history!

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