spines of short books

How to Write Memoir Short Stories

I have a friend that’s a composer. I once asked him, “How do you know how to blend together the violin and the french horn and the kettle drum and all those different instruments?” He looked at me funny and replied, “You go to graduate school.”

What he meant by that was: “It’s complicated!” That’s not the type of thing he could just tell me in casual conversation. Now, I’m getting a taste of my own medicine. My students who are still learning some of the basics of creative writing will ask me how they’re supposed to blend all the subplots of the stories of their lives together. This is the thing they want to learn to do first. That’s like saying you don’t want to bother getting a driver’s license because you’re so busy becoming a jet engine pilot.

Blending subplots as they progress over time is complicated, and you can definitely learn it, but it’s simply not the first thing you learn. First, let’s learn to compose great sentences and put together cohesive, entertaining memoir short stories. That’s why I’m teaching a series of classes on not writing a full-length memoir but writing the book as short stories. This trains writers to do the following:

Each Story Offers an Observation of the Human Condition

*Look for the underlying point of each of the memoir short stories. Don’t just tell readers what happened but let us know what it meant to you and how it changed you. Remember that the point of what you’re doing is to have actual complete strangers find your stories interesting. Family members are interested in your stories for a completely different reason, and they’ll read them no matter what, so those are not the audience, here. I’m trying to teach students to write about their lives in such a way as to bring out the intrinsically interesting and universal experiences that make readers relate to your life. That means doing the work of finding those universal themes inside a deeply personal story.

Learn to Separate the Memoir Short Stories of your Life

*Separate the different stories within one larger memory. Some events overlap so much that the juxtaposition of those events is the very thing that comprises the story. Other events stand alone, as memoir short stories in their own right. Learning to identify the different stories within one larger story helps you get organized, as a writer. Different stories means different observations. Each new observation of life will pack more punch in its own short story than it would as a subplot in one long book.

Focus on Conflict, not Exposition

*Blend exposition into each story. Most new writers begin each story with a lengthy narrative describing the setting and location. Instead, a story should begin with dramatic action around a conflict. That lengthy description is what we call “exposition,” and it needs to be artfully blended into the dramatic action of memoir short stories. Moreover, you often don’t need to include as much exposition as you think, because readers can figure out a lot of it for themselves. Short stories are a great way to practice doing this, over and over, before you get to the big job of providing those kind of details for an epic, 200-page book.

So, would-be memoir short stories writers, next time you find yourself wondering how to squeeze all that info into your story, consider you may actually have more than one story. Separating your life into pieces like this gives you an interesting outlook on your life and also makes your story more accessible to readers.

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Ruby Peru