Nathan here! Rebecca S. Ramsey is a former client of mine who is the author of several great memoirs, including French By Heartand her latest, The Holy Éclair. She has an incredible gift at turning real life into compelling and funny memoirs. Here’s a guest post on just that!
Within days after moving our young family to France, I knew that I had to write about it. During one of my early conversations with my new neighbor, Madame Mallet, the old lady looked at Baby Sam on my hip and said, “I prefer cats to children, though I do have a great nephew who isn’t too annoying.” When I smiled and nodded, (and wondered if I had translated her correctly) she added, “I call him Le Spermatazöide because he “was conceived by artificial insemination.” Just to be sure I understood, she added a series of strange charades.
Crazy stories were one thing, but a memoir was another. Could I tackle a project that big? Still, I kept writing, collecting stories that meant something to me. Four years later, as we packed our life into a shipping container and got back on the plane to South Carolina, I began to see the story arc underneath. After much wrestling and struggle, this larger story became French By Heart.
Now, years later, I’ve returned once again to the house on the corner of allée des Cerisiers to tell a story that I didn’t share in French by Heart, a more personal story whose characters have been whispering and shouting and stomping their feet inside my head for ten years. Even though this sounds like mental illness, I finally decided to give in and let them speak. In The Holy Éclair, Signs and Wonders from an Accidental Pilgrimage, I reveal how the town prostitute, a French chef, a homeless Brit, Vincent van Gogh himself, and a band of other ragtag saints turned my faith upside down during that first year in France, revealing the wildness of God’s love and teaching me the true meaning of grace.
So here I am writing memoir again. Does memoir appeal to you? Does your life hold a story that nags you for attention? Are there voices inside your head too, begging you to tell the stories you have in common?
If so, I have a few thoughts that might be helpful.
Determine the story arc and stick to it.
Write your stories, all the ones that mean so much to you, and then give them a serious look. What is your journey, the big change you experienced that you want to share with the world? What were the little struggles and big struggles that got you from the beginning to the end?
This wasn’t clear at first for me with The Holy Éclair.
I didn’t realize it then, but I’m pretty sure now that I started The Holy Éclair on my speaking tour for French By Heart. When I shared with readers that living in France had changed my life, that I came home a happier person, more at peace with myself and more open to others, they wanted to know how it happened. I found myself telling stories that I hadn’t shared in French by Heart, stories that I had thought were too personal to share, ones that had to do with the way in which the strangers I’d met made me question how I thought about myself and about God. The writing itself revealed to me my own transformation. I’m so grateful for it!
So, back to thoughts on memoir…
Once I figured out my story arc (which I should say took years, all in the back of my head) and started editing, I made myself do the hard job of throwing out the stories that didn’t advance the arc. This sounds reasonable, but it’s tough when you love them. Do it! The voices will thank you later.
Be brave enough to be brutally honest and vulnerable.
I’m trying to not be bothered by how much people seem to love the scene in the first chapter of The Holy Éclair when I say to the pharmacist that her teething pills for my baby look too big to swallow and how do you get a baby to take pills anyway, and she proceeds to explain SLOWLY in toddler-style French in front of a long line of French people what suppositories are and how you insert them.
Get over yourself and tell the embarrassing truth. It will help your readers to buy into the story and cheer you on as you tell it.
If you’re concerned that you might come across as a jerk- or a church lady, Dana Carvey style- tell the truth anyway. Readers need to see Jerk You so that they can watch you change.
Respect the privacy of others. But work hard to tell your story.
I always change names of everyone except my family members. With my kids, writing about them sure was simpler when they were little. When they got older and had opinions about what I wrote, I’d hand them passages to read and ask for their permission to let me share. Not too long ago, when I was blogging about taking Baby Sam off to Chicago for college, I had to sweat through some serious negotiations. In the end, we compromised. The story was still achingly true, and he and I felt good about it.
Time helps too. What kids object to now may change in a few months. Try asking again later, further down the road. (And maybe try bribery, if the story is really good?) But respect your child. One day she might write a book.
Give your story the time it needs
Speaking of time, I’m always ready to get the writing done and wrap things up so that I can move on to the next project. But giving your story the time it needs can be so important in getting it right. (Says the woman who took ten years to finally finish The Holy Éclair!) If you’re struggling, put it away and come back to it. See it with fresh eyes. Sometimes time can help you transform the story into something really meaningful. And sometimes writing that story can make a meaningful transformation in you!