“Memoir done right is an art, a made thing. It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page…the second you choose one event over another, you’re shaping the past’s meaning.”
Mary Karr, bestselling memoirist
One of the hardest parts of writing a memoir is when you’re overwhelmed by the topic and all the material or ideas you want to include. What if the theme is so huge, you feel like it could be two books, or three?
You need to be able to simplify “what it’s about” and clarify the key focus of your memoir, otherwise you’ll keep procrastinating or worse, spending time writing a draft that follows tangents that aren’t integral to the story.
The first step you need to take (before you sit down and start the first draft) is to write your memoir focus sentence.
- With my second memoir, A Letter From Paris, I had to clarify this sentence or I wouldn’t have met my deadline.
I spent much more time planning A Letter From Paris, and I truly believe it’s why I had the first draft (of 110 000 words!) finished in eight weeks. It certainly helped me with the overwhelm of such a huge story! Having a focus sentence helped me write the book in ¼ of the time it took me to get my first memoir (Love & Other U-Turns) ready for a publisher.
Getting my focus sentence up on my pin-board stopped me from going off-track every time I sat down to write. It also kept me motivated and overflowing with ideas to keep the story moving forward.
Every day when I sat down to write, I brought everything back to that sentence: does this chapter, scene or action relate to the questions raised in the focus sentence? Clarifying your focus sentence will help you write your first draft, too.
Note: If you’ve already written a complete draft of your memoir, it’s not too late! Get your focus sentence ready now, so that you can go back and edit, knowing what to include in the story.
Finding the focus sentence for your memoir is the best thing you can do to prevent and clarify overwhelm before you sit down to write the first draft.
How do you find your memoir focus sentence?
Start with the biggest question or argument the theme of the memoir stirs up in you. [It’s OK if you don’t have the answer to this question, yet!]
This is just so you know the key theme or question that the story of your memoir is going to explore. What do you most want to answer or explore or define in your memoir?
I certainly didn’t have the answers to my biggest question (who was my dad?) when i started writing A Letter From Paris. But my focus sentence helped me get a handle on my pathway into the story.
My focus sentence was: What if someone you thought you’d lost forever, sent you a message from the other side?
You can get some ideas for focus sentences in the sub-title of memoirs you love.
Yes, memoir is personal reflection, and it explores more than one question or theme. But it’s a story, and it needs action and conflict. Don’t forget that. Everything you include has to drive the story forward, or the central plot or premise of your book.
The focus sentence helps you know what to include as you draft your chapters to keep the memoir story moving forward.
To help you find your focus sentence, remember that a memoir is a book-length work of personal writing where you are making an argument for something.
Choosing what to include (and stopping yourself from going off on wild drafting tangents!) becomes a lot simpler when you’ve summarised your memoir into a one-sentence argument, question or theme.
By having that sentence to hand when you’re sitting down to write, you’ll find that your mind starts to focus on the key scenes and events that you’ll need to include to tell that particular story.
- What is the key lesson, question, theme, conflict or journey or question that your memoir will address?
Memoir focus sentence examples:
In Helen Brown’s bestselling memoir, Cleo, the focus sentence may have been: Can a cat help a family heal from trauma?
In Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French, her focus sentence may have been: Is it possible for a very Australian girl to fully integrate with the French way of life, for love?
By narrowing the focus of your memoir with a one-sentence summary, you’ll have a clearer pathway to mapping out the story arc.
The most important thing is to sum up the biggest question that your memoir stirs up in you. This way, even if you don’t have all the answers (to that question, yet), you can start writing.
Don’t worry if there’s another side story or argument that comes up along with your initial one. You might end up having a smaller ‘quest’ that runs alongside the larger one. But it’s important to clarify the most important part of the journey or story or lesson of this particular part of your life that you’d like to explore.
Clarify your focus sentence before you write the first draft of your memoir. Type it up and pin it up, and use it when you’re mapping out the ‘action’ of your memoir story into chapters and scenes. Using your focus sentence in this way, can also help you figure out what goes into each chapter. If you’re struggling with the first chapter, you might find this blog post I wrote helpful.
Did this help you? Have you written your focus sentence for your memoir? Comment below!
PS: I wrote an e-book which breaks down the structure of some of the biggest-selling memoirs of all time:
Secrets of Bestselling Memoirs.