“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you might be violent and original in your work.”
One of the hardest parts of writing a memoir is feeling overwhelmed by all the material or ideas you want to include. What if the theme or time span you want to cover is so huge, you feel like it could be two books, or three?
Remember that memoir isn’t your autobiography. It’s a story, first and foremost.
To get over this overwhelm (and start writing!) you need to be able to condense “what it’s about” and clarify the key focus of your memoir, otherwise you’ll keep procrastinating or trying all sorts of tangents that don’t even end up in your first draft.
The first step you need to take is to write your memoir focus sentence.
- With my second published book, A Letter From Paris, if I hadn’t used a focus sentence I wouldn’t have met my deadline.
- Clarifying your focus sentence will get you over the overwhelm that prevents you sitting down and knowing what you’re writing is taking you towards a first draft, too.
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 my brain ticking along with ideas, even when I wasn’t actively working on the book, to keep the story progressing towards the resolution of that focus sentence.
That’s the magic of the focus sentence. It’s as though, by condensing a large and magnificent;y complex slice of your life into one sentence, you can start to form your chapters and plot the story in the background even when you’re not actively writing. Your brain can form creative loops and connections while you’re going about your day.
Every day when I sat down to write, I brought everything back to my focus sentence: does this chapter, scene or action relate to the questions raised in the focus sentence?
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!]
What do you most want to answer or explore or define in your memoir?
If your memoir was making an argument for or around one key idea (or asking a question about that one idea), what would it be?
Go back to your universal themes and bring it back to the personal.
You can get some ideas for focus sentences in the sub-title of memoirs you love.
Yes, memoir is personal reflection, and you’ll cover lots of different aspects to your exploration of this theme or topic.
But a focus sentence helps you remember your memoir is a story, and as such it needs a premise, action that moves towards or against that premise, and a resolution.
Everything you choose to include (action, events, memories, back story) has to drive the story forward, or the central plot or premise of your book. Your focus sentence will clarify that central premise.
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.