We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.
For those of you who want to know how to use your diary practice to fuel a book-length memoir, I’m going to give you three simple steps to turning diaries into a book-length memoir or essay.
Many wannabe authors get book deals from writing memoir essays for places such as Narratively, and then use the essay as a bounce-off point to work on a book.
I’ve used my diaries for both my published memoirs (and smaller essays I published before the book was written), and this is how I do it:
1: Find your transformation or ‘challenge’
The first thing you need to do is find in your journals where you’ve chronicled the biggest challenge or transformation in your life, or just the one that you want to develop into a larger essay or book.
This challenge or transformation will be the main theme of your memoir (or essay). It could be a health crisis, or emigration, or grief, or wild romance, or a meeting with a mentor or another key relationship that has changed you such as a love affair, or big creative adventure, or major career feat (maybe you landed a dream job on the opposite side of the world and had to learn a new language to take it up?)… or even a family discovery that set you out on a quest.
This isn’t your personal opinion on something (this might come later), but this is the overarching theme or topic that will appeal to the widest amount of readers as possible.
Once you’ve found the theme or challenge you want to write about, you’re going to start mining your diaries for gold.
TIP: Once you’ve decided on your theme / journey / topic / challenge, look for the journal entries you made at the beginning of the journey, and take the next step.
2: Find your ‘point of view’ at the beginning of the transformation
Next, you’re going to look at who you were at the beginning of the ‘quest’ of the story. This is where you’re going to re-read your journals to see how your point of view has shifted and changed.
Your point of view is really important, because this is who you were when you began the journey. This is what will make up the beginning of the story.
Where were you living, what was your position in life, what was your relationship / career status, how were you feeling about life, what did you want, back then? What did you struggle with? What was ‘normal’ that then had to shift?
For example, if you are a Canadian woman who up and moved to Italy at age 25, who were you before you left Canada? What came before that huge decision? And what were your first impressions of Italy (could you even speak the language)?
Point of view is what draws the reader in.
The phrases and words you repeat around the subject is your ‘voice’ on the matter.
TIP: Find your journal entries around the time of the ‘beginning’ and highlight certain passages or phrases to use them to outline the first chapters of your memoir (or first paragraphs, if it’s an essay).
3: Mine your diaries for anecdotes, dialogue and details
Now that you’ve found the journal entries around the time of the challenge or quest, go through and highlight details that happened during key parts of the story, such as conflict, pain points or highlights. Details pull the reader into story.
For example, if you were the woman who emigrated to Italy from Canada, did you record any dialogue or first impressions of your new country during those first few weeks and months? What did your new country smell like, look like, feel like, in those early days? We’re incredibly perceptive when things are new.
Similarly, first impressions of people, jobs, or the details we notice when shocking things have changed, can really be amazing in stories and scenes. I remember visiting a friend’s house just after she’d had a serious accident. Overnight, she’d gone from life to death, but the milk in her fridge was still fresh.
Use those key words, phrases and dialogue to prompt writing certain scenes and plot out how you dealt with the key ‘conflict’ of the story.
TIP: Grab your highlighter and group certain journal recollections into plot points of the story.
Now, when you sit down to write your memoir (or essay), you’ll see that you actually have a wealth of material already!
Getting a journalling practice down is the number one thing you need to be doing if you want to write memoir.
Want to know more about how to journal for memoir? I made a 30 day journalling for memoir course which shows you exactly how to do it.