Russ Brakefield is a teaching assistant professor in the University Writing Program who teaches a course on memoir and personal writing. He shares some tips on getting started.
Good creative nonfiction—including memoir—starts with questions.
I ask students to develop writing that investigates life experience with specific driving questions. Memoirs take shape by trying to answer those questions in many ways: through storytelling, by placing your experiences in relationship to others’ experiences, and sometimes by incorporating other relevant fields of study, art, pop culture, etc.
The best memoirs dramatize experience in the same way good fiction does.
As a writer, you have to draw readers in by developing yourself as a character and by using tools such as detail, description, action and dialogue. As with all stories, dramatizing the central conflict and building tension throughout the memoir is also important.
Reflection also plays a major role in the memoir.
How has your character changed during the course of this experience or throughout your life? By reflecting on an experience or series of experiences, an author can connect their specific story to broader themes or ideas and make meaning for a broader audience.
Specificity is key.
Your superpower is your story, and the more specific you can be about your experience in the world, the better. When we tell our stories, through our specific perspective, we give our readers something no one else can, and more often than not, these stories end up carrying messages that resonate with many different types of readers.