William Zinsser Makes Memoir Writing Easy
Last year in preparing to write my memoir about adopting three kids from Poland, I checked out five books from the library. They were all on how to write nonfiction. I’d written and published a few short memoir pieces before, but I was unsure how to approach a full-length memoir. Unfortunately, these books didn’t teach me what I was looking for. They had lots of good advice on technique and how valid my story was. But I wasn’t looking for that. I was looking for how not to be overwhelmed.
An Adoption Memoir in the Making
In these last months, I’ve written about three chapters of my memoir. I haven’t done much since. I’ve focused on other shorter writing projects. Now, I’m turning to the memoir again, mostly due to a phone call I recently received from a complete stranger. She’s a woman who’s going through the process of adopting two kids from Poland and was in need of advice. In chatting, I discovered she had found my email by reading a blog I’d created during the months I was with my children in Poland. Her positive feedback about the blog and my writing style encouraged me to resume the project.
But when I thought about launching into the work of a full-length book, maybe 250 pages, I again felt overwhelmed. There’s a lot of intense emotions to put on the page, a lot of struggles, and admittedly, a lot of amazing stories. Of course, that’s how the adoption process often is, especially when you do it internationally, and I know that writing this book could actually help a lot of people. But when I thought of rehashing the whole emotional, dramatic story, I wanted to go watch TV or drink a glass of wine instead.
William Zinsser on How to Write Memoir
Yesterday I came across William Zinsser’s advice from his book Writing About Your Life. What he wrote is actually a few pages long, but he summarized the advice here in an The American Scholar article:
Go to your desk on Monday morning and write about some event that’s still vivid in your memory. What you write doesn’t have to be long — three pages, five pages — but it should have a beginning and an end. Put that episode in a folder and get on with your life. On Tuesday morning, do the same thing. Tuesday’s episode doesn’t have to be related to Monday’s episode. Take whatever memory comes calling; your subconscious mind, having been put to work, will start delivering your past.
Keep this up for two months, or three months, or six months. Don’t be impatient to start writing your ‘memoir,’ the one you had in mind before you began. Then, one day, take all your entries out of their folder and spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take.
Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.
Breaking a Big Idea Into Little Ideas
This idea may be the most singularly helpful passage I’ve ever read on writing a memoir — and the longer, more detailed passage in the book is even better. What’s so powerful is Zinsser brings the task down to what it needs to be: small chunks. Of course, doing this is not as easy as he makes it sound. You have to be an experienced writer to express yourself clearly and effectively, you have to know where the story begins and ends, you have to have an editor’s eye to know what has emotional punch or what’s funny or important. But the idea that writing can be as simple as writing a vignette and then putting it “in a folder and get(ting) on with your life,” is liberating. Any writer who’s been at it awhile knows how frustrating and imprisoning the process can be. But William Zinsser strips away the frustration and imprisonment, at least for the initial shaping stages, so inspiration can take over.
So I’ve resolved to go to my desk tonight and write about one episode in my adoption journey. Just one, and then one more tomorrow, and then another the day after that. They won’t be chronologically connected. I won’t worry about the larger context. Just one per day and nothing more. And after writing each one, I will get on with my life by watching TV and drinking a glass of wine.
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