How to Turn Your Life Experience Into a Memoir

Hi, writers! Julie, here. I am pleased to introduce our next contributor on FromNothingToNovel: Joan Hicks Boone, a creative non-fiction author from Burnsville, Minnesota. Joan and I met at a recent writers conference in San Francisco. As we stood in line for one of those banquet-style lunches, we went from zero to chatterboxes in sixty seconds flat. And then after finding a table and buttering our bread, we immediately started talking about the good stuff–our books. I found myself riveted by the details Joan shared of her memoir. And besides that, I’d made friends with such a delightful person!

Even though our lunch came to an end, with Joan heading back to Minnesota and I to Miami, our book talk has not. Joan and I are making good on our promise to keep in touch regarding our book projects.

I just can’t wait to read Joan’s book!

Meanwhile Joan is graciously sharing her story about how The Best Girl evolved from childhood memories to a fully-fledged memoir. Enjoy!

 

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By Joan Hicks Boone

I am actively pursuing publication of my memoir, The Best Girl. For those of you who may be interested in writing in this genre, a memoir deals with true events, but is typically told in a novelesque manner, therefore falling under the genre of Creative Non-fiction. Whereas an autobiography covers a person’s entire life, a memoir is usually written about a life struggle that the author endured over a certain period of their life.

 

In my case, The Best Girl is the story of how our family dealt with, and survived, in an environment dominated by domestic violence, alcoholism and mental health issues. The book starts with my earliest memory at age four, and ends as I turn fifteen.

I hope that sharing my writing process will inspire others who have considered turning their life experiences into an engaging narrative.

Getting Started

Many people have asked me how I got started on the journey of writing a memoir, and I will tell you that it came on gradually. I took my first writing class while I was still working full time as a nurse – my goal was to tap into my love for creative writing. During class, we shared our work, and received feedback from the instructor and our fellow classmates.

By the fourth week of class, I felt reinvigorated and wrote a draft of what is now the first chapter of The Best Girl. I read the first chapter, which describes an intensely violent episode that occurred when I was four years old, out loud to the class. When I finished reading, the entire class was in tears. Our instructor then gave a short presentation on the healing power of writing, inspiring me to continue.

As I wrote a bit more, my family became intrigued; I have two siblings, a brother who is six years older and a sister who is eight years younger, and they wanted to know more about their sister. But, even then, I wasn’t in the mindset of writing a book.

Once I had completed four essays, I found myself making an outline, and then realized I was writing a book.

The Best Girl was born.

Making Writing a Priority

Eventually, I decided to retire from nursing and focus on writing full time. I continued to take classes at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, and joined a writing group.  One of the members of my writing group suggested I write in the first person so that the reader could develop an immediate connection with me and the other characters in the book.

It took a bit of research on my part to understand how to write in the first person, but, once I found THAT voice – I was on my way. For example, instead of writing “When I was four years old I saw my dad hit my mom,” I could actually describe what I was seeing and feeling in the mindset of four-year-old: “Dad is very mad at Mom. He’s been yelling at Mom all day.” In this way, the reader is put inside of my (the child’s) mind, looking out through my eyes.

It wasn’t easy to write in the first person. I had to really think about what type of child I had been, and what my communication skills had been at each developmental age. I found the ages eight to ten the hardest to write – some chapters came out sounding more like a four-year old than an eight-year old. In addition, to make each chapter authentic, I had to put myself back into my house, back in front of my father, back into the trauma.

I also wove stories about the people who helped us (our heroes) and normal everyday family life into the book, so as not to bog it down too heavily with sadness. Once I had the first draft of the manuscript completed, I decided to formally divide the book into early childhood and adolescence, and write an author’s note at the end of each section. In the author’s note, I talk about the work I have done to obtain relief from the flashbacks and memories that plagued me into adulthood.

I describe many types of therapy and how they were effective for me, as well as the hope they offer readers, children or adults, who have witnessed traumatic events.

Perfecting the Project

To accomplish writing the book, I set up a writing schedule. Typically, I was at my computer by 8:30 a.m., finishing up around 3:00 p.m.  Most of the time, though, a full chapter would come to me during my morning shower. If I could have dictated the book from the shower, it would have been completed in record time!

To help me with editing, I asked one of my instructors at The Loft if she would be my professional editor. I also found three people who were willing to be Beta readers. With their help, each chapter has now been revised approximately five times, and the entire manuscript has undergone ten revisions.

This was not as simple as correcting typos or inadvertent spelling errors – each of them provided stylistic suggestions – and they all wrote where they wanted MORE – more description, more feeling. But, even as each of them challenged me to show and tell as much as possible, they also respected that it was my story, and left it up to me as to what to change and what not to.

Tackling Writer’s Fatigue

I will admit that there were days when I could not write for more than an hour. Reliving some of the scenes occasionally took its toll, and, on those days, I would have to stop and remove myself from it altogether.

One day, after finishing up a particularly rough chapter, I knew I was on the verge of tears. I decided to take my dog, Tehya, for a walk – an activity that typically is a stress reliever for me. When we returned, I tripped and fell on the driveway injuring my ankle and knee. It hurt, certainly, but it gave me the permission to cry. Once I got myself back inside, I settled into my favorite chair with a box of Kleenex and cried and cried. Tehya paced around me, wondering what to do to help.

After about an hour, I stopped crying, but couldn’t move out of the chair. I heard the doorbell ring and contemplated not answering it. It rang again, and I finally got up and answered the door. It was my neighbor, offering me apples from her tree. But, when she looked up at me, she saw that something was wrong. The apples were quickly cast aside, a bottle of wine was opened, and within an hour I was laughing at her silly jokes and complaints about the neighbors. It was just what I needed.

I would love to hear your comments! Have you ever thought of writing an essay, or memoir, about a life experience? What do you think would be your challenges? How do you think readers would benefit from your story? 

Thank You

I would like to thank Julie for inviting me to be a guest on the From Nothing To Novel blog. I met Julie in late February at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, and, though our meeting was brief, we made an instant connection.

If you would like to know more about me, or The Best Girl, please go to my website www.joanhicksboone.com – I post on my blog weekly and welcome new followers. You can also follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jhicksboone.

 

If you enjoyed Joan’s post, you may also like Julie’s series on Writing What Hurts. Start here, and learn why writing about what hurts helps!

 

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