A couple of months ago I did something that left me feeling somewhere between a wet noodle and a very burnt piece of toast.
Picture a TED talk, with a Zoom room as the stage, and a memoir writer in a fugue state with dry mouth and shaky legs giving a 10-minute talk without notes.
I’d been practicing this talk for weeks as part of a public speaking course that had one simple assignment: put together a signature talk. The talk could be related to your business. Or about a cause you’re passionate about. Or it could simply be your story.
As a memoirist, my story was the logical choice. I had to be able to speak about it succinctly and persuasively on all those podcasts I hoped to be on to promote The Only Way Through Is Out, my memoir about coming out and starting over in midlife (releasing February 2024 from the University of Wisconsin Press). Upping my game to promote my book was the reason, after all, that I had chosen to put myself through public speaking hell in the first place.
Within days of the start of the course, the doubt demons began whispering in my ear:
You don’t have anything worth saying.
Everything you want to say has been said before—and better. Hello? Have you heard of Brené Brown & Glennon Doyle?
Do you even have a story, really?
Ten minutes to tell the story I had written 200-plus pages about. That I had wrestled with for years. That I had written oh-so-many drafts of.
I stared at a blank Google doc.
I had no freaking idea how to condense my story into ten minutes.
I started to question whether I even knew what my story was really about.
Yep, I was questioning this even though I’d written a successful query and gotten a book deal.
To borrow from Vivian Gornick, what’s the story beneath the situation?
As memoir writers, we know the situation, the things that happened to us, the plot-level events. We know our subject matter. The grief of losing a long-term partner. What it’s like to come out at midlife and leave a whole life behind. What it’s like to live next door to a serial killer and not know it (as was the case with my book coaching client Jamie Gehring who wrote the true-crime memoir Madman in the Woods: Life Next Door to the Unabomber).
But what are the real stories beneath those situations?
That’s a question every memoir writer should ask themselves before they start writing and continue to ask as they write—and in my case, ask even after the book is finished.
A simple question that isn’t simple to answer.
Instead of bailing on the public speaking course (which I really wanted to do), I went back to basics, to the same steps I coach memoir writers through when we work together.
Here are the steps I took when I was struggling to articulate my story for my ten-minute “TED talk”—and that you can also take at various stages of your memoir journey to get clear on the deeper story you were meant to write:
These scenes are often referred to as “tent pole scenes,” those key moments that you know will be in your memoir no matter what. If any one of those scenes is removed, the tent (i.e. the story) will collapse.
Here are a couple examples of my tent pole scene paragraphs:
I came out to my mother. Told her I was considering leaving my marriage. She didn’t understand. She thought I was too old to start over. Part of me believed she was right. I had only lived one way for my entire life.
When I confided in my sister, she said, “Suzette, you know how obsessed you get with things.” She implied that this was a phase. That I was having a midlife crisis. It wasn’t a phase or a midlife crisis. Still. Who risks everything for a life they’ve been living only in their head?
Just make a list and write those short paragraphs now.
Don’t worry about the order of the scenes. That will come later.
What do these scenes have in common? Are there metaphors or images that are repeated? Can you see a pattern in these stories that you didn’t see before?
When I did this exercise, I noticed a pattern of safe choices, the idea of avoiding “bumps in the road,” and the use of the word “glowing” to illustrate how I wanted to feel in my life.
If you’re in the midst of drafting your memoir or you’ve completed your draft, likely you’ve used some image systems or have a number of metaphors running through your draft already.
If you are just beginning your memoir journey, here’s your chance to discover some of those patterns.
Choose the metaphor or pattern that shows up the most in your key scenes. In a 200-page book, you will have several, but remember we’re talking about a ten-minute talk here!
This one thing will be the golden thread to hold your talk (and possibly your memoir) together.
Review your key scene list and move up the stories that best illustrate that pattern or metaphor.
You may be able to layer in another metaphor or idea later, but start with one. Remember, this is a ten-minute talk!
I chose “glowing” as the main idea to center my talk around.
Now it’s time to turn these separate stories into a capital T Talk that has a beginning, middle, and end. Note, this exact arc may NOT be the eventual one you choose for your memoir, but it should reveal the change in you as the protagonist of this story. It should reveal the essence of the real story you want to tell.
I started my talk with a story of when I was a preschooler and wanted to disappear after I was chastised for breaking the rules, and I ended the talk with a moment when I walked through the streets of my new hometown toward my first Pride event ever, hand in hand with the woman who would later become my wife. And guess what? I was glowing.
This is a test for you to make sure that you know the point of your story.
Write 1–3 sentences that directly communicate the message of the Talk. “Tell it” versus “show it.” In a short 10-minute TED talk, we want to bring home the message directly after we’ve illustrated it with stories. You may or may not want to do the same thing in your memoir, depending on your style. The balance of “showing” vs. “telling” can vary dramatically. But for the purpose of your Talk, make it obvious.
Hey, I did have a ten-minute story after all! And it WAS already inside the pages of my memoir—I was just too close to see it at the time.
You have a story too—a story that only you can write. If you are struggling to find it, try out these five steps to get clear on the story beneath the situation. Let me know how it goes! I’ll be cheering you on to find your story in the first place—or rediscover it if you’re lost in the messy middle or even at the end of your memoir journey like I was.
And of course, there’s a sixth step you can take:
Pitch your talk! Really, do it!
Maybe you won’t find it as terrifying as I did to speak in public without notes. And even if you don’t pitch it now or ever as a signature talk, you’ll have a stable of stories you can pull out for those podcast interviews you’ll be landing for your book launch.