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5 Tips on Writing Memoir from Lawrence Hill


Lawrence Hill is the author of three novels, including the acclaimed The Book of Negroes (2007), winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Canada Reads competition. He was named author of the year at the 2008 Canadian Booksellers Association’s Libris Awards. His memoir, published in 2001, is titled Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada. Here he offers advice to aspiring memoirists:

1. Come to terms with what you are prepared to write, and what you are NOT prepared to write. Writing a memoir honestly will likely make the people close to you squirm, object, or feel offended for reasons justifiable or otherwise. Defining your territory and deciding its boundaries will be an important part of your work as a memoirist, although you may not have final answers until you have written a draft or two.

2. Juggle this paradox: the things that are most intimate and uncomfortable for you as a memoirist—the very revelations that make you feel the most vulnerable and exposed—are likely to be among the most engaging sections for the reader.

3. It may be a memoir, but write it like a novel. Scenes have to lift off the ground, and characters have to step off the page. Many of the elements that make for compelling fiction should also be present in strong memoirs: drama, conflict, uncertainty, bold characterization, vivid scenes, and pertinent and lively description of people and things. Generally speaking, showing a scene unfolding step by step engages your reader more immediately than editorializing or telling the reader things from a narrative distance.

 4. Prepare to write adventurously and critically about yourself and to be open to learning something about yourself as you set your life down on paper. Treat yourself as a character—make yourself interesting on the page. Avoid using the memoir as a soapbox. Placing yourself in a strictly noble light and lambasting your adversaries will alienate you from the reader. Write without judgment. Allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

5. There may be sections of your life that mean much to you, but that bore the reader. Share your work in early draft form with a trusted reader. “Trusted” doesn’t necessarily mean “intimate friend.” What you truly need is a friend or acquaintance who can step away from your actual life and tell you what sings and what seems uninteresting in your memoir. Receiving such advice from one (or more) people may help guide you toward more effective drafts.

For more about Lawrence Hill, visit his website here.

Copyright 2008 Lawrence Hill, for Allyson Latta.