Memoir Writers: Arrange Your Life Story

by Matilda Butler on February 17, 2013

catnav-alchemy-activePost #69 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Arranging a Visit

Hawaii-fireworks, memoir writingAs you may know, I am spending a month in Hawaii. This is the perfect place to go when you want to get a lot of writing done, when you want to take long walks each day, and when you have had enough of Oregon rain to last you for the winter. We’re well settled into a condo overlooking the Pacific Ocean where we have our computers set up and where we fix most of our meals. We even have fireworks each Friday evening easily visible from our tiny balcony. Talk about perfect.

Hawaii-orchids, memoir writingAs a friend said to me yesterday in an email responding to my news of being in Hawaii: “Matilda, I don’t want to hear any whining out of you for a loooong time.” And indeed she won’t.

Since I’ve lived on the West coast for 40-plus years, I think of Hawaii as a luxury, but one that I can indulge in with some frequency. It’s my version of a dark chocolate bar — good for you but not to be taken in excess. Meanwhile, we have good friends who live on the East coast. They visit us once a year and we’ve done some grand travels together. Last year, I learned that my friend has never been to Hawaii. I just couldn’t imagine it since Hawaii is my all-time favorite place to be. At first, I thought she was joking. But she wasn’t. I began hounding her husband that he should take her to Hawaii for her 80th birthday. I talked about it so much when we were together last July that I think I finally spoiled the surprise. They celebrated in January (her actual birthday month) in Maryland, but will join us in a few days to continue the celebration of her 80th year in Hawaii.

This means we’ve been thinking about all the places we want to take them. But it is more than just a list of places, it is also how we will arrive at those places. For example, our condo is near a beautiful, expansive park with crashing Pacific surf on one side and graceful swaying palm trees on the other. We know that they will enjoy walking there with us. But if we walk there from our condo, as we always do, she will have to walk past a lot of trash in a vacant lot as well as a couple of homeless men. Instead, we think we’ll drive them to the park and then take a long stroll.

There is a great local coffee house that serves only Hawaiian grown coffee and carries locally made chocolate. This is definitely something we want to do with our friends. We have figured out a shortcut to get there but it takes us through two alleys with overfilled garage bins and across a street at such an angle that we have to climb over a lava stone wall to arrive at the front door. We have decided to take them the long way that lets us approach from the beach side and even see a sculpture out front — a massive granite stone carved into a ring of fire.

Hawaii-pineapple, memoir writingOf course, these are just small approaches to be managed as if they were floral arrangements -fussing with each flower until it faces just the perfect way and angle. But the same is true for our bigger adventures outside Honolulu — the Polynesian Cultural Center, Dole Plantation, North Shore, Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, and more. One road we used to take to the east side of the island was in poor condition. Should we take it and hope for the best or should we take the H1 until we can pick up the H3 (a highway we’d never used before) even though that is a longer way? Yesterday was our day to drive the possible routes and see which would give our friend the best memories of her first trip to Hawaii.

Arranging Your Life Story

As we drove yesterday, I got to thinking about memoir writing and how it is similar to our planning efforts. A life is full of events just as Hawaii is full of spectacular adventures. A life needs to be shaped to fit into a memoir and it occurred to me that the approach to the life also needed to be carefully considered.

Look at the memoir you want to write or are in the midst of writing. Consider your approach to the story. You may be using memory shortcuts that make perfect sense to you. But does that leave the reader standing at the backdoor with no idea what the front looks like? This idea of the approach to your life will take on different meanings depending on what your life has been like and where you already are in your writing.

This idea of the approach to your life is easy to ignore because it requires some deep thinking not about the writing part but about the receiving part. Remember that if you are writing for an audience broader than one (and many people rightfully write just for themselves as a form of healing), then you need to spend time seeing how readers approach. You want to layout your story in a way that the reader can easily follow the path and make sense of the roadsigns.

Memoir Takeaway

This does not mean that you should “pretty-up” your memoir. It does mean that you should include in the approach to your life only the details that make a difference and that show your reader what your life was like. Have plenty of details, just make them ones that build the image you hope to share with your reader. Think of your life as the destination for your reader. How do you want her to get there?

Hawaii-2013-double-rainbow, memoir writing

And One More Thing

You can’t control everything. A reader may skip a chapter or jump to the end. Or the reader may start your book in one month, get distracted or busy, and not finish it until six months later. You have no control over those factors just as I can’t control all the experiences that my friend will have on her first visit to Hawaii. For example, I’d love to arrange a double rainbow on her first morning here just as we had a double rainbow visible outside our balcony on our first morning this time. But I can’t. And so it is with your readers. All you can do is try to set up the telling of your life story in a way that invites the visitor to your life to see your experiences with as much clarity as possible.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Grace Peterson February 19, 2013 at

So you got tired of the rain, did you? Well it was actually sunny for a little while today, believe it or not. Surprise, surprise. I hope you have a wonderful time visiting paradise and I hope your friends have an equally good time. Soak up as much sunshine as you can and bring some back to Oregon with you, pretty please. :)

Matilda Butler February 20, 2013 at

Hi Grace: Yes, I finally got too soggy and my eye’s windshield wipers needed a rest. We’re busy packing sunshine in every plastic bag we can lay our hands on and promise to bring them all back to Oregon.

Take care. Enjoy the bits of sunshine. Spring really is coming.


Carol Covin February 20, 2013 at

I love how you turned your planning efforts for your friends into a metaphor on how to write a memoir. Thanks!

Matilda Butler February 21, 2013 at

Carol — Thanks for your comment. All my friends and family are aware that everything in my life is available for use in a writing prompt or as a metaphor. I hope this one helps you think about how you want to arrange or present your life.

Some people have a hard time narrowing down what they put in a memoir. Pretend that the visitor to your life can only stay for 15 minutes. What would you want her to know. Then increase the amount of time and see what you would add to your story. This is a good way to make sure you are focused.

Similarly, Hawaii has so much to offer and there are small haunts where we’d like to take our friends. But we need to cover the essentials first.

By the way, as an update to my blog post, Hawaii didn’t deliver a rainbow on the first morning after our friends arrived. But a clear, bright one arrived just outside their balcony on their second morning. It stayed for more than 30 minutes and even became a double rainbow for a brief time.

As the commercial says, “Priceless.”


mary February 22, 2013 at

Thanks for the perfect metaphor. I’d like to use it with my memoir classes–giving you credit, of course. You have shown another way of “finding the story” in their lives.

Padma March 4, 2013 at

I love reading your blog and direction of looking at the events. It is like a GPS for my mental navigation of observing and writing. I eat only black chocolates as it good for one and I like the taste of that black cocoa with little sugar. We are spoilt in Switzerland with the variety of chocolates. Easter bunnies and chocolates are being flashed all over the grocery stores. There is a story about it.

Matilda Butler March 4, 2013 at

Hi Mary: Of course you may use this metaphor. I’m honored that you think it will help your students. And if they don’t know our website, be sure to give them the link. 2013 is a great year to share our enthusiasm for memoir writing.

Matilda Butler March 4, 2013 at

Hi Padma: I also love black chocolates. I’ve had a hard time finding Hawaiian chocolates that don’t have some dairy. So I’ve been “forced” to focus on Macadamia nuts with Hawaiian sea salt. Not a bad deal.

Anna Kelso March 4, 2013 at

I signed up to get Shirley Hershey Showalter’s “How to Write a Memoir.” Only pages 4-7 (of 7 pages) printed out. Is there a way you can let her know and have it resent to me?

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