I actually started writing my memoir back in 2017. In a Google doc, I wrote about moments in my life that were funny, dramatic, and meaningful. I included the “a-has” and events that slowly changed how I thought about myself and the world around me.
I wrote and wrote, but I thought, this sucks. No one will want to read this. But I couldn’t quite pinpoint what exactly sucked.
Up until that point, I had read enough memoirs from amazing authors to recognize stories that completely captivated me. I wondered how to craft scenes and chapters like some of my all-time favorites—The Invisible Thread, Tuesdays With Morrie, or I Am Brian Wilson (I love the Beach Boys).
I knew my draft lacked dialogue. So I added in dialogue. It still sucked. Feeling overwhelmed, I told myself I’d figure it out later. Like a lot of people who start writing a book, I thought I should automatically know how to write a good story. If I can’t even do that, I thought, I’ll never finish. I put it away and eventually forgot about it.
Cut to 2022. This time, I vowed to get answers for how to write interesting scenes and chapters. I wasn’t even quite sure what a scene entailed. I also needed major help with structuring my book.
I knew I had to expand my understanding of all of this through writing classes. The online classes I took helped me with structure—which chapters should go where and how to connect them all together.
The weekly writing group exposed me to unique voices from all walks of life and week by week, I discovered how other writers craft their structure from personal essays.
I’ll further explain the three specific things I learned that changed my writing for the better.
1. I stopped summarizing
Remember that thing I couldn’t pinpoint in my sucky first draft? I now understand why—it wasn’t a story. It was a summary. I compared it to when I was in high school and would get the cliff notes vs. actually reading the book. Let’s just say I read a lot of cliff notes in my day. When we’d have follow-up discussions in class about the book, it was obvious I didn’t fully grasp the story.
In summarizing, I was rushing through my story and forgoing scenes that would fully engage the reader.
I learned that in order to write a book, you have to ground your reader and create scenes that draw out a particular event.
Then, as my writing teacher would say, you can pepper in dialogue to bring the reader deeper into the scene.
So I tried that. What I once thought would suffice in two paragraphs sometimes ended up being two pages because I was adding in dialogue, more thoughtful prose, and a whole lot of internal stuff. This brings me to the next thing…
2. I started writing more subjectively
In thinking about all of the books I’ve read and listened to over the years, the ones that keep me engaged make me feel like I’m a ghost, hovering over the characters, watching the scenes unfold.
It’s one of the best parts about reading—to get inside the writer’s head. David Sedaris is a master of this. He can make the most mundane come alive in such a humorous way by telling the reader what he’s thinking.
This is why books feel so much more compelling than watching a movie. I have yet to hear anyone say, “the movie was way better than the book.”
When I wrote more subjectively, I included more “head and heart stuff” and fewer play-by-plays of what happened. I also stopped overly describing the physical place of the scene, as I learned it doesn’t really matter. What’s more important is the narrator’s thoughts and feelings.
Then, something unexpected happened. I started noticing the details of my own life, so much more vividly. You know, the tiny things that make you, you. Or the quirks that make your family and friendships so weird and unique.
Prime example—the other day my mom assisted my dad to the bathroom (he’s mostly wheelchair-bound from diabetes). I was cognizant of the way she would count his steps out loud as he carefully made his way from the living room to the bathroom without his walker. Her voice always deepens and in a military cadence, she’d say, “One, two, three, four, hup, two, three, four…”
It’s not that I never noticed this before. But I suppose I didn’t bother to consider the subtle nuances of this moment. My mom was channeling her inner soldier to motivate my dad to make it to the bathroom.
3. I use fewer adjectives
Everyone knows about “show don’t tell” so, in my mind, showing = lots of adjectives. I sprinkled them all over my sucky first draft.
After watching a few YouTube videos from accomplished authors, I learned that in order to really “show” a scene and immerse your reader, you have to allow the reader to feel it and come up with her own conclusions. This helps evoke deeper emotion and connection to the scene.
Wow—this one hit me like a ton of lightbulbs. Yes, this is so true. When I thought about all the books I’ve read, I did recall moments where I reached my own conclusions about how a character felt or looked. I subconsciously imagined myself in that situation and would come up with my own interpretation of that scene.
A simple example, “Hank was staggeringly tall at six-foot-seven” (the author is telling you exactly how Hank looks) vs. “Hank crouched down so he wouldn’t hit his head” (you’re left to imagine it for yourself and come to the conclusion that Hank is a big person).
Jerry Jenkins, a fiction author I follow on YouTube, does a fabulous job of explaining this further. Wendy Dale, my former online writing class teacher for Memoir Geniuses, hates “show don’t tell.” Her video gives you the lowdown on what she means.
Learn by examples—read voraciously
I’m obsessed with audiobooks and continue to listen to both fiction and nonfiction books. Recently, I started re-listening to my favorites. These included Educated, The Glass Castle, and of course Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.
The first time I listened to Wild, I was so completely drawn into the story. I was moved by her convictions to hike the PCT and the death of her mother. The second time, I took all of the lessons from my classes, and as a wannabe author, I noticed how satisfied her reflections made me feel. I hope my own reflections will make my future readers feel this way too.
Even though I thought about trashing my first sucky draft from 2017, I decided to keep it. It’s a memento of how much I’ve learned and grown as both a writer and observer.
I'm so proud of you ☺️