April 6

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How to Build the Emotional Journey of Your Memoir

By Boni Wagner-Stafford

April 6, 2021


Our friend Bobby Kirl is a brilliant singer-songwriter and musician, with a captivating voice and a gentle, soulful personality that shines through his insightful lyrics. John, Ingenium Books’ cofounder and IMHO musical genius, was working on one of Bobby’s original acoustic guitar-and-voice-only songs to create a new mix. He was adding snare drum, bass guitar, and lead guitar tracks, and we even got to sing and record some subtle vocal harmonies. It’s a gorgeous new production, both the same as and different from Bobby’s original.

Watching John’s creative passion come alive while he worked on this song was a thing of magic, puffs of faerie dust swirling in the air between John’s brain, ears, and the computer on which the Logic Pro sound editor lay open. John explained to me that he was consciously creating movement in the song, building each instrumentation through each bar and phrase, making sure the song delivered an emotional journey to the listener.

Aha, I thought. In an instant, I saw the parallels between structuring a memoir manuscript (or any other genre for that matter) and the musical structure of a song: the emotional journey.

When you set out to write your memoir, which is one of the sub-genres of nonfiction, you’ll be in good company if you struggle a bit with your structure. We’ve written some helpful articles that can help you with the intellectual and content planning exercises of deciding on your structure and developing your working outline. Now, let’s talk about how to build the emotional journey of your memoir.

Your Own Emotional Journey

Writing memoir is very much an internal, emotional exercise for each author. The intersection between the author’s journey and the reader’s experience is where the literary goldmine lies. Shiny, speckled flakes that throw tiny bursts of light back into the universe. As I write in The Best Memoir:

We write about our past and our lives and in doing so we discover the meaning behind it all. Sometimes, not often, we  discover the meaning first, and then decide to write. It’s one of the gifts of this process, like giving birth after a long, no-drugs-allowed labour: the self-discovery of what it’s all been for. 

While the results of our work writing memoir might leave us healed and better able to forge a future, like the ugly duckling transforming into a swan, the sacred part of this journey is actually the relationship we build with the reader. And that requires an emotional transparency and vulnerability we rarely share, if ever, even with those with whom we share our bed.

—Boni Wagner-Stafford, The Best Memoir

It’s Not a Popularity Contest

The toughest crap and the darkest places we find ourselves in and then climb out of are the experiences that make memoir so, ummm, memorable. It’s what makes them worthwhile, both from the author’s story-birthing process and the reader’s perspective. We learn about and find new ways to respond, often later embarrassed or ashamed that we weren’t able to do better, be better, as we faced our demons the first time around.

I recently read the memoir, I Swear I’ll Make It Up To You, by Mishka Shubaly, as I prepared to interview him for our Empowered Author Podcast. His writing is brilliant, not unexpected from someone who received the Dean’s Fellowship at Columbia University for graduate study in Fiction. But I found the first half of his memoir really hard to read: I didn’t like the messed-up Mishka he was writing about. Perhaps the alcohol-fuelled poor decisions of his first few decades made me uncomfortable because of my own alcoholic past, but he was behaving like a disempowered victim and his tornado of self-indulgence was painful to witness. Just as I wondered how I could read another page, Mishka’s inner transformation took shape and he finally started to write about how he got his shit together. My emotional response was similarly transformed and I felt relieved — and curious.

The Value of Vulnerability

Shubaly had to be vulnerable enough to show me the worst bits of himself, to show me the depths of his self-loathing, in order that I might also stick my emotional toe into the pools of his despair only to be finally, mercifully, pulled back up into a sunny morning filled with a hot breakfast and hope. As I finished the book and closed the cover of my beat-up, six-year old e-reader, I wondered which Mishka Shubaly would show up for our podcast interview: the self-centred, bitter addict, or the humble, insightful, healed adult?

Writing your memoir is not a popularity contest. At least not this kind: If you’re writing your personal story because you think you can justify all your past decisions and actions and make people understand why you responded the way you did, so that they agree with you, finally… I suggest you put your proverbial pen down and think again.

How Did You Change?

As I discuss in The Best Memoir, you need to be able to open up your beliefs and actions to your own deep and humble scrutiny. Your awareness of the emotional and psychological conflicts raging within feeds the character expression unleashed through your writer’s voice. It’s you. The real you. In your head, in your heart, on the page: your reader wants and deserves all of you. And she can’t get what she deserves if you are unable or unwilling to go there.  

As Tasha Eurich discussed on an episode of the Blanchard Leader Chat podcast, self-awareness is both internal and external. You needn’t necessarily have both forms, either: you can be strong in one without being strong in the other.

Internal self-awareness: knowledge of your strengths, weaknesses, and values. 

External self-awareness: knowledge of how you are perceived by others. 

Improve Your Self-Awareness to Write Better Memoir

You can start to improve your self-awareness by questioning what you think you know about yourself. Answer these questions:   

  • Who am I?
  • Why am I the way I am?
  • Why do I react to things as I do?
  • Others don’t see things the way I do. What is it about me that causes that?
  • What is it that motivates me?
  • When I’m feeling something intensely, where do I feel it in my body?
  • What childhood experience was the first time I felt that strong emotion?

You’ll find that as you consider the questions, new thoughts and awareness will continue coming to you even after you complete the exercise. Keep coming back to your answers, and watch how your self-awareness will deepen and grow. Use this new depth in your writing.

The Emotional Journey of Your Memoir

To write a memoir that readers will believe, enjoy, interact with, and recommend to others, you need to be conscious of their emotional journey as well as your own. That means being brave, confident, and vulnerable enough to show the real you. The good, bad, and sometimes ugly. It’s also foundational to character development arcs: you are not the same person after the experience you’re writing about in your memoir as you were before it began.

You need to be introspective enough to understand the deeper dynamics the events triggered within you, and vulnerable enough to be honest while revealing your less-than-perfect self. That is how readers will relate to you and your story, not when you cover up the living room furniture of your soul in sticky plastic and ask them to take off their shoes.

—Boni Wagner-Stafford, The Best Memoir

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