Manner of Speaking: The Mini-Memoir: A Slice of Your Life
A different way to tell your story.
By Nowell King, ATMB
Has there been an era in your life that was unusually vivid or intense? A set of circumstances or an event that caused you to make choices you might not have made otherwise? Perhaps it was your freshman year at college, your stint in the Peace Corps, your first teaching job, or your first year of parenthood. Have you confronted a life-threatening illness or played a key role in some larger community event? Do those experiences continue to have an impact on you today? Will they give your audience what one writer calls “that shiver of self-recognition,” the sense that what happened to you could have easily happened to them? If so, you have the ingredients for a particular kind of speech: the mini-memoir.
One of my earliest speeches in Toastmasters was about the year and a half my husband and I lived and worked in New Zealand with the Maori people. They taught us new rituals, including how to introduce ourselves using geographical references. For example, a Maori woman might say, “My mountain is Ruapehu and my river is the Wanganui.” While I lived in Wanganui, I thought of myself that way, too. They also taught us how to throw one of the best parties I have ever been to, a hangi, that began in the morning with guests helping to dig a pit so that the sumptuous feast we enjoyed that evening could be cooked underground.
A mini-memoir is a little slice of life, an idea that needs a little shaping and polishing before you present it to an audience. Start by checking out the titles of published memoirs at your local library or bookstore. Many memoirs are organized around a place and a certain time period in the author’s life. For example, Manhattan, When I was Young is Mary Cantwell’s evocation of what it was like to live in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. Farewell To Manzanar is Jeanne Wakatsuki’s account of spending part of her childhood in an internment camp during World War II.
Other memoirs are organized around some problem or illness the author has faced and overcome, such as Caroline Knapp’s Drinking, A Love Story or Katherine Russell Rich’s The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer – and Back. Memoir can focus on a specific relationship, often between a parent and a child. Calvin Trillin’s Remembering Denny is the author’s attempt to understand why a friend with a bright future ended up taking his own life. Other authors reflect on the roles they played during some national or international conflict. One of the best, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, chronicles what it was like to be a young reporter during the Vietnam War.
Although your speech will be much shorter than a book-length memoir, your topic may be similar. Your challenge will be to compress these experiences into a relatively short speech. Ironically, once you’ve chosen your topic, the best way to start is to write a big, sloppy draft. What do you remember about that time and place? Look at old photographs. Dredge up the sensory details. Try to remember how things felt and smelled. Who else played a role? What do you remember about what other people said and did? Don’t start editing yet. At this stage, what is most important is opening the floodgates and allowing the memories to pour in.
Once you have generated enough material, your job is to shape it. Let your audience know from the beginning of your speech what was at stake. Consider an opening like Katherine Russell Rich’s first sentence: “I found the lump twenty minutes before breakfast, three weeks before my marriage broke up.”
• Make sure your audience knows where and when the action took place. For example, “I was determined to try my luck in Los Angeles even though I was just out of college and flat broke. It was 1975, the year One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest won an Academy Award for best screenplay. I knew I could do better.”
Note that both these examples take the audience to the place author Philip Lopate calls the cul- de-sac, the place where the speaker must turn around and find a way out. By setting up the situation in just a few sentences, you give yourself enough room to tell your story.
• Think in scenes. Imagine that your audience is sitting in a darkened theater. Help them see what you saw. If your mini-memoir is about the impact of parenthood on your life, you could begin with a quick sketch of your oldest child’s birth. “Ten years ago last month Jason was born. We had just moved into a new house in Galveston. I was standing outside on the front porch watching the wind whip through the trees when I heard the weather report. Gale force winds were predicted. My husband was out of town and I didn’t know a soul.”
• Create a dramatic arc by building tension. Instead of telling your audience how you felt, let them experience what you were experiencing. Our novice screenwriter might say, “For a while I crashed on my friend’s floor, but the day I found all my belongings out on the sidewalk, I knew I had outstayed my welcome.” Our expectant mother might say, “By seven o’clock the winds were up to 75 miles per hour. That’s when the lights went out.” Try writing three scenes, one at the beginning of your story, another in the middle and one at the end.
• Once you’ve gotten the elements of your story in place, it’s time to do what Lopate calls your “introspective homework,” by examining your thoughts and feelings in order to communicate not just what happened, but what it meant to you. Why is this story so important to you? Why do you remember these events so clearly? How did these experiences change you? Did they make you a stronger, wiser person? These lessons don’t have to be life-changing and they can certainly be funny or wry.
Before you decide to give a mini-memoir speech, consider a couple of ethical issues that most memoirists confront. Most likely you will be talking not just about yourself but about other people as well. Are you obligated to present only information that is literally true? How can you accurately remember dialogue that was spoken years ago?
Remember, your first responsibility is to your audience. Your goal is to give a coherent speech that has impact. You may decide, because of time constraints or the need for clarity, to choose one or two characters and omit others, or even to create a composite character in order to create opportunities to use gestures and vocal variety. You may decide to put words in your characters’ mouths they didn’t actually say. If you are uncomfortable with this, consider including a disclaimer in the form of a sentence or two letting your audience know that you are telling your version, which probably won’t be exactly the same as someone else’s. You could say, “The story I’m about to tell you is true, but the names (or some of the details) have been changed,” or “I’m sure my ex-husband would tell a very different story, but that’s how it was for me.”
The mini-memoir speech gives you a chance to tell a story and reflect on a slice of your life with wisdom and insight. It can be a rewarding assignment, for you as well as for your audience.
Nowell King, ATMB, is a member of Cascade Toastmasters Club in Eugene, Oregon. Reach her at email@example.com.