The essay we’re examining all summer, “How to Write a Memoir” by William Zinsser, is so rich with good advice that it may take us well into the fall. So here’s another Zinsser pearl of wisdom: think small, not grand. You may start out to write a comprehensive, final-word story of your entire life, complete with a history of your heritage, a review of every school you attended and job you held, a roundup of your friends and details about all of the significant episodes that happened over your lifetime. But, really, that would take volumes, and it would be daunting to start. Zinsser suggests you begin with a wide lens and then narrow your focus.
“Most people embarking on a memoir are paralyzed by the size of the task,” Zinsser observers. “The past looms over them in a thousand fragments, defying them to impose on it some kind of order. Because of that anxiety, many memoirs linger for years half written, or never get written at all.”
To point you in a direction, he continues, “you must make a series of reducing decisions….Remember that you are the protagonist in your own memoir, the tour guide. You must find a narrative trajectory for the story you want to tell and never relinquish control. This means leaving out of your memoir many people who don’t need to be there. Like siblings.” Leave out siblings! That just sounds wrong! But it’s not their story; it’s yours. You can mention them without going into a parallel story of their lives.
“Families are complex organisms, especially if you trace them back several generations,” Zinsser notes. “Decide to write about your mother’s side of the family or your father’s side, but not both. Return to the other one later and make it a separate project.” That’s something we often forget—nothing says that this has to be your first, last and only memoir. After you write about one aspect of your life, you may find it easier to start on another, still autobiographical, book on a whole new topic—proving it does take volumes to cover your fascinating life.