So You Want to Write a Memoir?
Editor’s note: Many thanks to author Kate Walter for offering this guest post on the basics of memoir writing for the readers of RN2Writer. If you have a hankering to tell stories about your nursing life, this blog post will resonate with you. I urge you to watch for — and purchase! — Kate’s forthcoming memoir, Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing (Heliotrope Books, June 2015). And don’t forget to visit her website to read some of her essays and check out her classes and workshops.
A memoir is not an autobiography, so you must find the right container for your story.
What is it about? Night shift at the ER in a big city? Working in a rural hospital?
Being a school nurse? Dealing with patients who are terminal? Assisting in the OR?
A memoir needs an arc, a trajectory, a focus. The narrator must start some place and end up some place else. Not necessarily a physical place but an emotional place. There has to be a struggle and wisdom gained. You are not just telling your story but reflecting upon what happened and how these events impacted upon you and changed your life.
It took me three drafts to figure out the container for my debut memoir: Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing. In the first draft I was just writing out my story and creating major scenes but it lacked a narrative thread.
My second draft had more structure, but it ended with me getting my heart broken when my 26-year relationship ended. The third draft, (which I sold), began with the break up and showed how I healed my life. I found a universal theme. The reader is rooting for the narrator to get her life back together and laughing along with her as she tries internet dating at 60.
For me, I had to write out three drafts until I figured out the narrative arc. I was also writing and publishing personal essays while working on my book. Essays can be woven into your memoir and writing essays can help you find the focus or container for your memoir.
Nursing involves dramatic situations, and readers like books where the narrator draws back the curtain and takes them inside an unfamiliar world. If you are describing patients, I definitely suggest you change their names and maybe some identifying characteristics (unless the person’s real identity is relevant to the story). [Editor’s note: You should never use patient-identifying information without consent.] You are allowed to change names in memoir as long as you make a note of it. But you cannot change the truth of the story. For example, if the patient has colon cancer, you can’t give him lung cancer. If he died at midnight, you can’t say he died at daybreak.
When you start writing, forget what anyone will think. Just start creating pages. Get something down. Don’t worry if it is the first chapter or the second or where it will fit. (Trust me things will get rearranged as you write more drafts.) A chapter that was originally in the back of my book landed up near the front in the final draft.
If you are serious about getting published I recommend joining a workshop or taking classes. You must get feedback on your pages from other writers you trust. Comments from writers who are not nurses will help you figure out if the medical details are understandable to the lay person. You may also want to show certain sections to those in your profession to make sure the medical details are correct.
Rewrite as you get feedback and create your chapters. When done with your best draft, hire a book doctor/editor to read the entire manuscript; then rewrite some more.
This is a long journey—it took me years—but it can be very rewarding. For me it was cathartic. Writing my memoir was literally part of my healing process.
The books listed below are good resources and I recommend them.
The Three Stages of Memoir Writing by Linda Joy Myers
Bottom line: if you want to write a memoir, you must get started. Good luck!
Kate Walter is the author of Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing (Heliotrope Books, June 2015). She teaches writing at CUNY and NYU.
If you were going to draft a memoir, what would it be about? Tell us in the comments section!
Wishing you well,