Memoirs for Beginners

15:00 EST - Jul 28, 2021

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Larry O'Connor

Larry O’Connor is the author of the acclaimed memoir, TIP OF THE ICEBERG, which was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. He is the in-house editor for the novelist and memoirist, Mary Morris, whose memoir NOTHING TO DECLARE is a feminist classic. Larry also was editor of the best-selling VIRAGO BOOK OF WOMEN TRAVELLERS, which was recently reissued in the United Kingdom.

Visit Larry's editor profile on Reedsy

Well, hello, everybody! My name is Larry O’Connor and thank you for joining. It's three o'clock in New York and multiple different times all across the globe. It was very nice to see such a variety of people from different places have joined in today.

About me

I am the author of Tip of the Iceberg, published in 2002 — a memoir of which I’m quite proud. I’m now working on publishing a memoir of my grandfather's life. I'm also the in-house editor for my wife: memoirist and novelist, Mary Morris. She is the author of Nothing to Declare, which is a critically acclaimed feminist classic memoir, and she recently published All the Way to The Tigers — a memoir that is currently available in paperback.

What does starting a memoir mean?

I want to start today talking about memoirs and the writing of memoirs. Because these are the basics that you begin with. When you start, you've just got a box in front of you with a cluster of personal effects. (Well, maybe there's more than one box!) And you may say to yourself, ”Well, I just don’t know where to begin here, I need help with this.” That’s where I come in. I'm here to show you the tools that have helped me with my own work, and been very successful with numerous students. 

So, let’s start unpacking this metaphor. You’ve got your boxes of personal effects that you’re not sure what to do with. These are things that you've collected throughout your life, memories to sort through and put in your memoir, and it’s hard to know just where to begin. I'm going to be the person who guides you to a place where you can organize all of that raw material and start feeling like you can proudly turn it into your memoir. Think of it like this: I’ll be the boost or the jumpstart to help you get in gear and start writing. We want to get you to the point that, after going through your raw materials, you think “Yeah, I think I've got a story!” That's going to be our goal. 

Why do we write memoirs?

Let's start with this thought: No memory is insignificant. I think a couple of things may be true of those who are just getting started — you're either the person who says “I've got to get my life's story down because it's that time of my life.” Or you might be someone who's coming here and you're pretty darn sure your story’s going to be about what happened in some turning point moment in your life: what happened in your family, or what happened during something you couldn’t control. You might want to write for a lot of different reasons. 

But primarily, a lot of folks I've talked to and worked with say that they want to write memoirs to help others. That is just such a noble pursuit, and one of the things that I want to underscore. I want to help you with this and get you to a place where you can tell your story in an honest way. 

A memoir is your story

Here today, we are talking about process, not product, and that's my message to you throughout. So, when I discuss the beginning of the process — using what I call the I Remember exercise — at the heart of it is the notion that it is your story and I'm just here to facilitate the beginnings for you. I can do two things: First, I can help you find the story that you want to tell, to me that’s the key; it's your story, not my story. And secondly, I can help you acquire the tools with which to tell it. 

What are the essentials of a memoir?

Now, what is a memoir anyway? Well, let’s start by saying what it’s not. It’s not “your memoirs,” which is something very different. When I think of someone writing their memoirs, or autobiography, I tend to think of something like: 

“I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I went to private school, I met the right people, they connected me to a university job, I was set up with political actors, and I ran for Congress in 1982 and lost, and then 1984 I gained my seat in Congress.”

The problem with this is that it's a linear progression of life events rather than a work of creative nonfiction, or “memoir,” which is also a story of your life but one that doesn’t follow this straight-line format. Now, you might ask “Okay, well what's creative nonfiction? Does that mean I can just make it up like I can with fiction?” And my answer to that is that you can't. You can't fully make it up, but there are tools that you can use to mine that material, those memories which are not always what they seem.

The I Remember exercise

So, you may recall that I mentioned the I Remember exercise earlier on. I will now give you a sense of what this method sounds like, using examples from my own work — Tip of The Iceberg. This will just be a very brief overview, but I think it illustrates what I'm getting at in terms of organizing those boxes of personal effects, digging in, and finding something that you want to build a story around. The book I’m referring to was the first book I ever published, but it wasn’t what I’d first planned. I was originally working on  how cold influences people’s culture and behavior. Being from Canada myself, in the cold north, I became interested in this topic and was doing a lot of research about how people in cold regions are often more reserved than and very different from people in Mediterranean climates. 

So when I was researching these northern cultures, I began to feel a personal connection to what I was reading. And one day I was doing an I Remember and I came up with a memory from when I was nine years old. I was looking out through a picture window and this is what I saw on the other side: 

“I came to believe that the flooder of the ice rink was not my father. The man who spread water every night, when the weather turned cold became Lord Dufferin, a gray eminence, the namesake of my public school. Sometimes he became an old-time hockey player, a Bruin, a Black Hawk, and at others, an Inuit, a man of the north.”

 When I wrote that I couldn’t have imagined at the time how it could evolve into something much larger. It started with just that passage in a notebook. But when I dug deeper in that memory of the shadowy figure on the ice, I began to think about my life in a brand-new way, and I realized that there was a lot that I don't know about my father, about his family — and the rest became the story in Tip of the Iceberg. 

What sources of material do we use?

Now, let ‘s talk about how to find your own material. So, what does that mean? Let me explain. John Berger, the author and critic, wrote that there are three sources from which writers can dredge up material. I’m going to show you two of his sources for fictional material, and then one, which is my own making, for those writing memoirs. 


The first source is experience. Now that's pretty straightforward: Experiences are just what happens to you, where you were born, your ethnicity, your religion, and the places you experience. These are self-focused; the basic facts about yourself, what shapes your identity, the starting block.


The second source that John Berger said writers look at is called Witness. Take the classic example of the Witness: dialogue. It’s a situation where you are in conversation with somebody and things are happening. You’re not experiencing as much as things are happening for you to witness. We can think of it as a witness of a trial, for example, in terms of what is seen and then described to a judge and jury. 

Imperfect Memory

For fiction writers, Berger called the third source imagination. But it’s different for memoir writers, because they don’t just make up facts to suit a story. Rather, they rely on their memories, which in some cases can be “imperfect.” The imperfect memory source piece is really interesting because it involves the memory that is ours alone -- and at times differs from the memories of people who had the same experience at the same time. We can share experiences with others, but our memories will always be individual. 

For example, I'd like to think that the memory that I had of the backyard rink was mine but my father might have a different memory. My wife, Mary, tells a story about how she experienced her mother’s actions after she had a pretty severe bicycle accident as a girl. She had hurt herself falling and the next thing that she knew her mother had arrived at the accident site in the family car. Mary's memory of this is that her mother rolled down her window and just said, “Please, get in the car.”

However, my wife’s mother didn’t have that memory. As far as she was concerned, that’s not how it happened. Mary’s mother's memory is that she got out of the car and went to where her daughter was hurt and gathered her up, took her to the car, and then brought her home. So, that's what she remembers. What’s interesting about this is that it shapes two different people’s worldviews. If Mary's mother were writing a memoir, she'd write it from the place of a good mother. But when Mary writes the same memory she would think that something was missing there — and, if she were to choose to write from that memory, she’d try to come to grips with why it was she remembered her mother not acting in a loving way.

The tools of the novel

That is where we begin, with the imperfect memory. What Jon Berger would call fiction is imagination — filling in the inevitable gaps in memory. That’s where we draw the distinction between the novel and the memoir, the imagination piece. Of course, explaining this might be putting that cart before the horse — filling in the gaps in memory usually comes in the latter part of writing your memoir. But one of the things that I want to stress is that memoirists really are using the tools of a novelist. When you open up the memoir, you're looking for the same things that you see in a novel: character, dialogue, voice, and pace. As a reader, you may be drawn to one thing more than another. I'm particularly drawn to a good voice in a memoir, but the other parts still need to be there! So, yes, we build the memoir using the tools of the novelist. 

Compilations of I Remember moments

So let’s begin to unpack the materials that will give you an idea of structure, plot, and mold your story into a more complete narrative. Let's go back to your writer’s toolbox. At the heart of this, the hammer in your toolbox is your backyard rink moment, or your “I Remember” exercise,which is drawn from a book by writer Joe Brainard called I Remember and published in 1975.

Each I Remember in that book that I recommend highly to prospective memoirists gives you a sense of a small part of Joe Brainard's life. In each I Remember, he pinpoints the things of value, and then he works on them. He uses them to influence poems, the beginnings of stories, the essence of essays. These “I Remember” moments feed into conversations with other artists, which, in turn, would feed into work for them. The book was part of an organic cyclical storytelling tool. 

Brainard published this compilation so long ago, but we're still using it as a tool to tell our own stories. So, Brainard got his “I Remembers” down and had his impact with them — let's do the same for you. I'm going to recite a few of Brainard’s “I Remembers,” because I believe it’ll help you gain insight in terms of beginning to write your own story: 

“I remember when I didn't really believe in Santa Claus, but I wanted to so badly that I did.

 I remember pink lemonade.

 I remember stories about girls being born in taxi cabs.

 I remember every other Saturday having to get a haircut and how the barber was always clicking his scissors, even when he wasn't cutting anything.

 I remember crossing your fingers behind your back, when you tell a fib.” 

(Joe Brainard, I Remember)

Trying an “I Remember” exercise for yourself

Now, let's try this as an exercise for you:

Step 1: Take a yellow pad or a notebook — whatever it is that you like to write in — and find yourself a real nice and quiet place. I tend to think of a park bench, or out on a stoop here in Brooklyn, wherever you feel at peace. I like the idea of a “sit spot,” which has become particularly enjoyable during the pandemic, where you find a spot and just sit, seeing the nature all around you. (Of course, don't go to a place where there are too many birds, because you don't want to be distracted by noises at all!) The idea is that you sit with your material, whatever that may be, and it becomes a stream of consciousness as you write your “I Remembers.”

Step 2: Once you’ve found your writing spot try to write a batch of I Remembers. After you’ve got them down in writing, set them aside for a couple of days. Let them marinate for a bit while you attend to other things; your life is a busy life so let it go and put these I Remembers you did out of mind. 

Step 3: Then go back with a second notebook. You're going to put on the top page “Focused I Remembers.” Look into the “I Remembers” that you wrote in the first notebook and start to mine for material, for ideas, for things that keep cropping up. This might be something about your father, an old friend who you haven’t thought about for years, or a look that someone gave you. A lot of these memories are trying to bring out “the you” that you were then, and so they bring you back in time. But when you look at it now you might not think about it the same as when you first had the memory. 

Something really interesting that I, and others who have done this, have found is that the stories that emerge from these Focused I Remembers often come from things that were secret. This can be exciting  — if there's any single thing I think that publishers are looking for, it's a mystery, something that even the author is discovering as they go. I'm a big believer that mystery can really fuel your work if you come to that in the way that you do in Focused “I Remembers.” 

Step 4: Keep this in mind, because now what you're going to do is write. Take those Focused I Remembers, those examples of  in your life that have captured your imagination, and write them as a group. 

Step 5: After that repeat the previous exercise: get up two days later, go to the same spot, or choose a new spot, a new park bench. You’ll find that it’s a place where you can go again and delve deeply into writing more I Remembers, even taking some that you’ve already written and expanding on them. You’ll find that these expanded Focused I Remembers end up being both remarkable and surprising. Some of these things might be known to you, that you knew you’d write about, but other things might just come as a shock. Maybe it's lightness, maybe it's darkness, but it's what you’ve ended up focused on, even become passionate about, a subject matter that has become very meaningful to you.

Constructing your story

We’ve come to the end of the idea of getting to the raw material, you’re now in the third part where you take those materials and construct a story with them. Approaching the latter part of your writing process is taking those expanded Focused I Remembers and writing the scenes. When I say starting a scene you might think “I’m not a literary writer, I don’t know the first thing about starting a scene, what exactly is a scene?” Well, a scene is the single action that moves a story forward. And that's all it is. You have your Focused I Remembers in mind, and you want to move the story that you’re looking to tell forward. Furthermore, the story is really just a causal connection between scenes. Every I Remember moment is a scene that propels the story forward. 

That’s what you’re going to do with your Focused I Remembers. So, don't worry about making the connections in between them, that's for another time. When you get to that stage, if you’re stuck on it, you can always find other classes, or work on structure, and that would be my advice to you for that. After all of this, the work that you finish with might form the basis of what could be your personal essay, or a surprising memoir. And you’ll know that this unanticipated, often mysterious, story began with the raw material that we set out to mine today. 

A final note

As this session comes to a close, I hope that this was helpful and something of interest to you as you get to a place where you can take the next steps in writing your own memoir. I just want to say thank you to Reedsy for giving me this opportunity to talk about memoir writing — it is a great passion of mine and my wife’s. Being able to share these ideas gives me great pleasure. I will close by encouraging you to go to Reedsy and look at their editor marketplace if you have a project in the works — I’m on there already working with memoir writers and I’d be happy to work with others. Looking forward to hearing from you! 

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