I’m so happy M. Shannon Hernandez has agreed to return to Choices to discuss memoir while on her WOW! Women on Writing virtual book tour. We met her here before with her thoughts about journaling, and since I think journal writing is a great way to jump-start a memoir, it is fitting to have Shannon tell us how to write a life-changing memoir. Shannon recently launched: Breaking the Silence: My Final Forty Days as a Public School Teacher. She shares her vast experience in providing us with the six features of life-changing memoirs.
How to Write a Life-Changing Memoir
By M. Shannon Hernandez
Life-changing! That is a tall order, isn’t it? If you are an author, you most likely want to change lives with your words. Not only am I a connoisseur of memoirs, I also have written a memoir, and I coach memoir writers to turn their memories into manuscripts. I have spent much time dissecting memoirs. Here I discuss:
Six Features of Life-Changing Memoirs
1: Narrow your focus waaaayyyy down
Your memoir is not an autobiography. Your memoir should be written as if the entire book is a snapshot into one theme of your life. You want your readers to walk away knowing you, and that one experience, on a much deeper level.
2: Put More Than You Into Your Memoir
I know I just instructed you to narrow your focus way down, but we need to think bigger in our writing pursuits—unless of course you are a high-profile famous individual, such as Hillary Clinton or Madonna.
How does this apply to you? Imagine you are writing a memoir about your 3-week trek across the Himalayan Mountains, the focus is on your survival of that trip, as well as what you learned about yourself along the way. It would be wise to include details about the geography of the area, interesting snippets about the people and donkeys you interacted with, as well as your exploration of life-and-death questions you answered as you progressed along your arduous journey. Your readers want to know about you, but it’s the back story and vivid details that make for a powerful memoir.
3: Tell the truth
One of the best ways to write a powerful memoir is to be honest and genuine. This is oftentimes very tricky, because as memoir writers, we don’t want to hurt or upset the very people (our family and friends!) who often appear in our books.
When I wrote my memoir, Breaking the Silence: My Final Forty Days as a Public School Teacher, I knew I had a major dilemma: If I opted to tell the whole truth, I would pretty much ensure to never be employed with New York City Public Schools again. But, I also knew that teachers, parents, and administrators needed to hear my message of why great teachers are leaving education in droves, and why the current educational system is not doing what’s right for our nation’s kids. I wrote my book with brutal honesty, and it has paid off with my readers—and is getting national attention about what is really happening behind closed school doors.
4: Put Your Readers In Your Shoes
Powerful writers show, not tell. And for a memoir writer, this is essential to your success, because you must invite your reader into your perspective, so she can draw her own conclusions. The best way to do this is to unfold the scene before your reader’s eyes, by using vivid language that takes your audience from readers to viewers.
Perhaps your aunt is a “raging alcoholic.” It’s important that you don’t say this, directly, because your voice will be seen as judgmental and critical. Instead, how can you paint that picture for your audience, so that they come to this same conclusion? You might write something of this nature: “Vodka bottles littered her bedroom, and I had learned, the hard way, not to knock on her door until well after noon. Most days she didn’t emerge into our living quarters until closer to sunset, and I would read her facial expression to gauge whether or not I should inquire about money—just so I could eat one meal before bedtime.”
5: Employ Elements of Fiction and Bring Your Story to Life
Most of us are familiar with the narrative arc. In school, our teachers used to draw a “mountain” and once we reached the precipice, we were to fill in the climatic point of the book or story. Your memoir is no different—you need enough tension to shape your overall story, as well as each individual chapter, with that narrative arc.
In addition, I like to think of the people in memoirs as characters. A great memoir pulls you into their lives—what they struggle with, what they are successful at, and what they wonder about. And through learning about these aspects of character, you are introduced to intriguing setting details and a captivating plot
6: Create An Emotional Journey
Don’t aim to knock your readers’ socks off. Knock off their pants, shirt, shoes, and underwear too! Leave them with their mouths open in awe, or laughing hysterically, or crying tears of sympathy and sadness—or all three. Take them on an emotional journey which will provoke them to read the next chapter, wonder about you well after the last page was read, and continuously tell their friends and colleagues about your book.
The best way to capture this kind of emotion is to connect the emotion of you, as the character, with pivotal events happening throughout your narrative arc. That moment when you realized your husband had an affair? You weren’t sad, angry, nor devastated. Instead, “I learned of my husband’s affair when the February bank statements arrived and I realized that in one month’s time, he had purchased a ring and two massages at a high-end spa. Those gifts weren’t mine. He was using our money to woo another lady and build a new life. I curled up in a ball and wept for three hours—I had been demoted to the other woman.”
About M. Shannon Hernandez: Shannon Hernandez is the founder of The Writing Whisperer, and her mission is to help heart-centered entrepreneurs and heart-centered authors find their brand voices, share their unique stories, gain more visibility, establish themselves as experts, and create authentic marketing messages, all through the use of smart content strategy and engaging copywriting. The Writing Whisperer was named one of Top 100 Websites for Writers by The Write Life in both 2014 and 2015, and Shannon has been featured as a content strategy and copywriting expert on many prominent podcasts and websites. She is a leading voice in the world of authentic business writing and heart-centered education reform, and she writes regularly for The Huffington Post. Shannon’s memoir, Breaking the Silence, chronicles her exit out of public education, after 15 years, and provides readers an intimate view of her journey to business ownership, finding happiness, and reinvention.
About Breaking the Silence: My Final Forty Days as a Public School Teacher: America’s public school system is broken and M. Shannon Hernandez knows why, firsthand. After fifteen years in the teaching profession, three gut-wrenching realizations forced her to recognize that she must leave the career she loved so dearly. She knew that if she continued to work for a failing system, she would also continue to lose a little piece of her heart and soul every day.
You are invited into Hernandez’s classroom for the final forty days of her teaching career to understand the urgent need for school reform, clearly demonstrated in each story. You’ll witness the intelligence, vulnerability, and humanity of her students, and the challenges teachers like Hernandez face as they navigate the dangerous waters between advocating for and meeting students’ needs, and disconnected education policy.
This book is not only a love letter to her students, her fellow teachers, and to the reformed public school system she envisions, but also a heartfelt message of hope, encouragement, and self-empowerment for those who feel they are stuck in soul-sucking careers. It is an essential read for each citizen who is seeking a life comprised of more purpose and happiness, as well as parents, teachers, administrators, and policymakers who know our nation’s education system is in desperate need of an overhaul.
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