We all have stories inside ourselves, pasts filled with quirky characters, impossible situations, and lessons learned. And most of us think about writing it all down at some point, if only to make sense of our lives or capture memories before time snatches them away.
It was no different for AJ Jackson, private investigator and grandmother. She had a legacy of tales she wanted to leave behind for her family but no writing experience to make it happen. That’s where I came in. To be honest, I doubted that my own experience as a fiction writer would be enough to do justice to the project that grew into This New Mountain. But after reading a handful of memoirs and detective novels, I came to believe it could be done by using a logical approach, as well as my imagination.
Establishing the goal and purpose of AJ’s memoir was the first priority. What began as a simple retelling shifted quickly into creating a work for an audience beyond her family with the hope of helping others to face their fears.
The next, and highest, hurdle was getting AJ’s stories into a form I could use. For months she talked into a tape recorder until her voice grew hoarse (yes, she has the gift of gab and a lot of stories to tell). She began with the most vivid of her memories and those closest to the surface. Questions that came to my mind while transcribing led deeper into her past which, in turn, led to other untold stories.
My goal as I wrote the book was for the reader to hear AJ – as if she was sitting across the table, sharing a pot of coffee while telling her adventures in her own unique way filled with clichés and country wisdom. To me, her life played out like scenes in a movie, and I wrote them as I saw them in my mind. All the hours of listening to and replaying her recordings allowed me to put aside my authorial voice and my writing style in favor of creating the memoir in AJ Jackson’s own voice.
It became evident early on that the bulk of the book would have to be arranged by theme to make it work. An adherence to chronology would have stifled it. We ended up with a good mix of focused, single-story chapters and multi-story themed chapters. And the themes lent themselves naturally to chapter titles such as Sin and Survival (where AJ learns to lie in order to succeed in her line of business) and Jackrabbit Mind (where she uses her brain, and/or temporary insanity, to get the job done).
Eventually the chapters were ready for proofing. At that point AJ read them over and either gave her approval or let me know what needed changing. I edited, revised, and rewrote accordingly. She then re-read the stories and gave more input. This cycle was repeated (endlessly, it seemed) until we were satisfied with the integrity of each chapter.
One of the last steps in creating the memoir was deciding how to organize it all for the final draft. The first handful of chapters were set in chronological order, and the last two were grounded by their content. I threw summaries of the remainder into a spreadsheet, cut it up and laid the chapters out on the floor. Color-coding by topic, event, beginning, and ending let me see which ones I could shuffle for pacing and interest and which ones had to stay together, as well as where consistency and transitions were needed. In the end, like magic, it all fit. The stories within each chapter tied together, and all the chapters ultimately fit into the main theme of the memoir – facing one’s fear.
The result is a book of real adventures of a country girl, thrown jobless and alone into mid-life, who must face her fears daily in the dangerous and unconventional profession of a private investigator.
I’m sure that many who wish to write memoir will not only enjoy reading this post but will learn from it. Many thanks to Cate for sharing it with us!
Have you tried to compile your own or another person’s memories or life history? How did you approach the task?