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Bestselling Author & Writing Coach

by Martha Simmonds
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Alison Wearing is a Canadian author and performer. She teaches memoir writing workshops online and leads writing retreats in Canada, France and Mexico.

1. Why have memoirs become so popular?

Personal stories connect us. For as long as there has been language, we have gathered together and shared the stories of our lives: the challenges, joys, burdens and triumphs. This is what weaves us together, the sharing of ourselves and our stories. 

It used to be that only famous people wrote their memoirs, but in the last several decades, writers began changing the way personal stories were written and it became clear that a person didn’t have to be famous to have a story worth telling, they needed to change the way they told that so that it could be interesting to readers. 

That is the work of memoir writing. Learning to tell a personal story in such a way that it can have resonance and meaning for others.

2. Could you talk about what inspired you to write your first memoir?

Like many people, I had been carrying around a story in me for years. I knew I would write it someday and, eventually, I decided it was time. Or maybe the story decided it was time, because I began to feel a longing to set that story down on paper.

I began with a single memory, a narrow shard of time, a moment when life as I had known it suddenly changed. We’ve all experienced a version of that, perhaps a loss of innocence, but in my case, it was the night my mother told me my dad was gay. 

I knew that scene had power. I spent a lot of time swimming around in the sensory detail of that moment: the nightie I was wearing, how I was stretching it over my knees, the sound of my mother unloading the dishwasher, the clanking of cutlery, that kind of thing.

Once I finished that scene, I wrote the next one that came to me. I didn’t write in chronological order. I wrote whatever scene came to me next. I knew the book was done when I stopped feeling that internal stirring of an element that wanted to be written.

3. Many aspiring memoir writers struggle to decide on the appropriate span for their stories. What can you share about the way this particular scope of time appeared right for you?

This is a terrific question, because the most common mistake people make when they set out to write their memoir is that they try to include too much. Waaaay too much. I made that same mistake with the first book I tried to write and after years of having it spill all over the place, I ended up throwing the whole thing into the fireplace.

My first published book, Honeymoon in Purdah, was about a journey I made to Iran. It was a two-month journey, so the constraints of time and place were firmly there before I had even written a word. I did myself such a favour by limiting the story like that because it allowed me to focus and write the book. It wasn’t easy, but at least it was straightforward.

My second book was a memoir about growing up with a gay father in the 1980s. Again, I had a fairly narrow time frame (my childhood) and a single relationship (my dad and me). It was tempting to include all kinds of episodes from my childhood, stories about my mother and brothers, and the many other interesting stories that took place in the decades after my dad came out, but I stuck to the story at hand: my childhood with a gay dad, which was published as Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter.

By the time I wrote my third book, Moments of Glad Grace, I was interested in exploring some pretty large themes and topics – truth, identity, ancestry – but I knew that I needed a narrow, watertight ‘container’ in order to do that. The whole book takes place over one week in Dublin, where my dad and I went to do some genealogical research, but I include all sorts of flashbacks and musings to different times, places and ideas.

4. How to organize chapters — write chronologically or randomly and then piece them together?

This is going to be a frustrating answer, perhaps, but everyone’s different. I know writers who say, you MUST write in order: from the opening scene to the story’s final breath. That may work for them, but in my experience, we don’t often have such crystalline clarity when we set out to write, so much of our exploratory writing is going in search of the real story. Most writers I know agree that often we don’t even know what the story is really about (it’s rarely what we think it is) until we’ve written a first draft or a large collection of scenes.

I always tell people to ‘go where the energy is.’ In other words, write the story that is pulsing in you right now. Once you’re finished that, something else will probably start blinking. Go there. Chances are very good that this is not going to happen in chronological order, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t begin to assemble those pieces in chronological order once you have a number of them.

As I described above, I began writing my first book with the scene that had the most power, the most energy, and then I went from there. This can also be a good way to avoid writer’s block, because the stories and scenes that call to us tend to be the ones we’re ready to tackle, whereas if we’re bound to writing chronologically, we might run up against something that just isn’t ready to be written. And then we feel stuck.

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