Five Ingredients for Writing Meaningful Memoir

Sage Tyrtle

I’ve been telling true stories on stage for ten years, all over the world. I’ve taught workshops in India and spun tales in New York City. Won story slams, been on the radio, even on television. And when stages vanished in March of 2020 my life came to a screeching halt.

After a couple of months discovering that Napping Most Of The Day was not a positive career choice, my five-year-old self came marching into my room and woke me up and said, “HEY. Remember how I said I was going to be a published writer? Okay, make it happen.” So I started telling true stories on the page instead. Two years later, I am profoundly grateful for the sea change my life has undergone.

Anyway. What the hell does any of that have to do with memoir? This: I’ve been telling my own stories for a long time. I’m good at it. And I know what ingredients make memoir meaningful.

1. Unique Lived Experience

Even if it feels superficially like your life is similar to others in your peer group, there are always unique aspects. For example, I grew up in Southern California in the seventies, then moved to the Silicon Valley and spent the eighties there. For me, “normal” was going to Transcendental Meditation Retreats on the weekends. “Normal” was having a classmate who owned every single Atari game in existence because her dad worked at Atari. But of course they’re both unique and parts of them make wonderful stories. We have a silly tendency to assume that the people reading our stories are just like us. But our stories are read by people all over the world, who we have nothing more in common with than the fact that we’re both human.

Your life experience is interesting because no one else is you.

What’s your unique lived experience?

2. Emotions: Investment and Distance

I know. How is it possible to be emotionally invested and emotionally distant? About ten years ago, right after my beloved mom died, I thought — you know what I should do? I should tell a story about my mom on stage. Now, at the time this seemed like a brilliant plan, and I talked to a storytelling show producer, I worked like crazy on the story, I was ready. And then the day I was set to perform the story I lay down on the floor and cried in a fetal ball for three hours. I! Was! Not! Ready! But after a lot of time, and a lot of tears, and a lot of figuring out how to be alive without my mom, I was able to write about her. I was able to perform a sold-out solo show celebrating who she was as a person. Much later when I looked back at the story I wrote right after she died, I could see that it was the worst thing I’d ever written. And listen, I wrote a story about a vampire named Midnight in 1986, when I was fourteen. So. LOW BAR.

But when you’re emotionally invested, how do you know when you have enough distance? When you can’t wait to tell the story. When you can tell it without breaking down. When you can tell it over coffee and a piece of pie in a café. Sometimes that means a month, and sometimes that means ten years. Everyone is different.

Whether it’s joy, grief, rage, terror, or love — which of your life stories grabs you emotionally?

3. Underlying Themes

When I was a kid I loved looking at Richard Scarry illustrations. He’d cut a city block in half and show you what was going on behind the scenes. The best true stories work just like a Richard Scarry drawing. My story “Two Years in a Tent in the Woods” is nominally about living without plumbing or electricity and being afraid of bears. But underneath? It’s a story about being a new parent and fearing that my kid and I hadn’t bonded. The theme is the scaffolding holding up the story. If you took away the theme, my tent story would collapse into a pile of rubble.

What’s the surface of your story? What’s the underlying theme?

4. Change

When I was little, I was sitting under a tree and a plane was flying overhead. I thought, “I want to remember this moment, forever, forever.” And forty-four years later? I do! Every time I hear a plane in the sky I think of Little Sage and I give her a mental hug. (And then I thank her for making me stop taking naps and write instead.) Now, that moment means the world to me. But not to you. How come?

It’s a vignette. A nice moment, but nothing changes. In the tent story I mentioned above, I began as a worried new parent, and ended as the parent of a small child, happy and secure in our relationship.

If the protagonist doesn’t change over the course of the story, then the underlying theme is rendered moot.

After giving birth: “Oh no, what if I’m a bad parent?” Six years later: “Oh no, what if I’m a bad parent?” Not very satisfying for the reader, eh? The reader wants to get to the end of the story and say — Yes! That’s why I spent my time with these words.

How do you change in your story?

5. Risk

Often when I talk about “risk” people think of, you know, a shark eating a helicopter. And then they’re like, “I have never met a shark! I do not own a helicopter!” But risk can be found everywhere.

In the tent story there are two parallel risks. One, the imaginary risk of being eaten by a bear (it works because I believed I was going to be eaten) and two, the risk of not bonding with my child.

When I started telling stories on stage, I often told a story I loved about a stranger who started talking to me. She had a posh British accent and because she sounded like a BBC announcer it took ages for me to realize that she was completely serious in accusing me of going into her favourite bagel store and stealing her favourite bagels just before she walked in. But no matter how many times I told this story on stage, it never worked.

Finally I had to sit myself down and say, “What’s the risk?” Well. There wasn’t any. So I started working on the story about how I met a boy on the internet in 1991 instead. (I know! There’s some risk.)

What’s the best thing that could happen in your story? What’s the worst? Where’s the risk?

When we include these five ingredients — unique life experience, emotional investment, underlying themes, change, and risk — our story deepens. It resonates. It gets accepted by fancypants literary magazines!

So. What’s your story? Tell us.


Sage Tyrtle’s work is available or upcoming in X-R-A-Y, The Offing, and
Apex among others. She’s told stories on stages all over the world and
her words have been featured on NPR, CBC, and PBS. She runs a free
online writing group open to everyone. Twitter: @sagetyrtle

And here’s the link to Crow Collective:

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