Friday, April 29, 2011

Making the Most of Memories

Memoir is making a comeback as most editors can tell you. It isn’t just the big publishers who’re trolling for good pages of memories. Magazines are just as interested in finding passages from one person’s memories that will resonate in another person’s mind.
Literary magazines seek memoir in a variety of genres. Everything from a boy’s first soapbox race experience to a girl’s first brush with love fascinates readers when delivered with finesse, humor and/or poignancy. Editors know this and sit on the river bank of possibility, fishing for the perfect submission to float by, ready to be reeled in.
Plucking the perfect memory to expand into an essay can happen quickly. You only have to hear someone tell about a recent event or see a commercial on television. A similar memory flashes through your mind that is vivid, exciting, and filled with details to entice a listener. Within an eye blink you’re inside that memory, breathing in the sensations that riveted you back then.
If you believe that others have had similar experiences or that they have felt as you did, you have the makings for a memoir subject. The trick is finding its length of memory strength and subject direction.
Memory and Subject Usage
Just because you have decided on the memory doesn’t mean that the heavy work is done. Once a specific recollection is chosen, what aspect of it are you going to use for your essay or story?
This choice can make or break the impact of the finished work. Everything else hinges on this choice. If you have a specific market in mind to approach, the subject will have to be something they will appeal to that market.
If your memory concerns how long it took you to choose your wedding gown from all the available dresses at the local shop, it wouldn’t appeal to a magazine which specializes in disabilities. If, on the other hand, it reveals your wedding dress selection as based on the fact that you happened to be on crutches due to a recent injury, that disabilities magazine might leap on such an unusual slant to the question of disability and everyday life.
You could take that same memory and use it for a memoir piece from a sports slant, especially if said injury came on the ski slopes. In this one, you don’t have to mention the dress selection, but rather, concentrate on the injury and the mental upheaval that occurred when facing your wedding on crutches. It could end with admiration for those who function each day knowing that the inconvenience of crutches is a permanent thing.
In the end, whichever richly detailed memory is chosen, the subject for a memoir drawn from it can vary in emphasis and direction. Much depends on what use you wish to make of it and the medium you’ve selected to receive your manuscript.
Length of Memory Strength
This expression denotes the strength of memory being relived coupled with the calculated length of written piece sparked by this memory.
Here’s an example.
A memory of swimming with friends at the local creek sparks many memories that can tie into it. There is a memory of having dear old Dad through you into the deeper water to “teach you to swim” and how your terror kept you from taking to the water for another ten years. That memory ties to one with your first “official” swim instructor and the crush you had on him until you learned that he only liked redheads.
This line of memory (and we all have ones like it) creates a timeline for either an article or a story. For an article, the writer can flesh out each strong mental impression and create a piece on the consequences of mile-marker events in a person’s life. On the other hand, the article could revolve around only the fear-driven experience and the scars that ensued, or how the father’s action changed the relationship between child and parent. The permutations are endless, depending on how many memories were sparked and their quality or importance.
Once the decision is made regarding how the memory is going to be used, the critical factor is how long the article or story will run. Consider it the petal vs. blossom question. It could run very short (under 400-600 words) as a personal experience piece for a children’s magazine. It could go between 1500-2000 words for a popular magazine as personal experience, as well. Two thousand to 5000 words could take the memoir to literary magazines that are looking for more detail, critical thinking, and expertise.
Standing above the rest is the book-length manuscript. Many book publishers are looking for well-written memoirs of varying types for their lines. Some want manuscripts from celebrities or public figures. Others snag those from people who know people (the starlet’s personal assistant, for instance.) Still others will consider superbly written manuscripts from the ordinary man or woman.
Some of the time humor is selected over other considerations. Geographical or historical relevance can also help trigger interest from publishers. Every book deal has its own deciding factors.
One Way for Making Memoir Work
My writing for the next year or so will utilize huge amounts of travel memory and its central role in articles. After so many months on the road, I have more material than I can ever use on just about every subject imaginable.
Much of it I’ll use for literary. There are tons of bits for children’s magazines. Still more can go to trade magazines and travel markets.
The book, at least for now, will center on the changes that took place within Sister Jo and me as a result of the places we visited and what we experienced. That subject has distinctly personal reverberations. As well, the manner in which we chose to approach the project makes it more unique. Once that one’s finished, we can discuss others with different slants.
 We have a few more days to explore before settling down again. I hope your memoirs are as rich as ours. It’s never too early to begin thinking about the past and how it can be used.
Until later,


  1. Thanks Clauds. I have really enjoyed reading your insights on memoir and experience, and how to focus that towards a purpose. There was (is) a memoir that spoke to me, before I even knew it as a genre unto itself, called 'My Lobotomy'. There is so much for us to share, teach and grow as a human race. I look forward to reading yours.

  2. Thanks, Carrie. We have so many that keep popping back into our consciousness with a big impact.

    Those we'll definitely use in the book.

    Hope you come back often. Take care.