Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Jennie Goutet Shares Her #WriteTip on How to Write a #Memoir Like a Pro #AmWriting

The difficulty in fiction writing is to come up with a plot that keeps the reader on the edge of his or her seat. In non-fiction writing, the plot is already in place - at least it is in case of a memoir.

So the difficulty in non-fiction writing lies not so much in the organization of it all, but in helping the reader to feel passionately about the story. In the case of memoir, it cannot simply be about telling the story as it happened. That is more of a diary entry than a memoir. The author has to approach the events from a bird’s eye view and guide the reader to a place where they can process the events and make sense of them, and even be moved by what occurred. I followed this process throughout the book, often using the beginning and/or end of each chapter to step out of the story and explore the signification of what was happening.

It helps to get down the facts first. Let me give you a concrete example. The following is the first draft of my opening chapter, that had been edited for mistakes, and which I felt was good enough to send to my beta readers:

My story begins in Avignon, which seems like the perfect place to start. Our family is staying in the Alpilles of Provence this week, and today I walked the broad cobblestone streets towards the plaza of the Palais des Papes for the first time in 23 years.

I kept holding off from taking pictures, confident that I would stumble upon that special square or shop or street that would unleash all my memories. I kept looking around for something to hold onto that would bring me full circle from where I came from to where I am now, but two decades soften the details. Time shrouds in foreignness what was once a significant city to me.

I was 19 and studying abroad my junior year. I walked along the country road from the small town center, which was a suburb outside of Avignon - grateful for once, that I lived so far outside of the city. The sky was such a deep blue and the leaves on the tall trees such a brilliant gold that the sight begged for me to pause and soak it in. The Fall colors last much longer here than they would in Paris or New York, and it was already November with hardly any bare branches on the trees. I stepped off the bus alone, as my roommate had decided to linger a bit in the city on this particular day. On my right side was a small hill with sheep grazing, and to the left of me was a field with a perfectly straight row of tall trees in the middle, dividing the space in two.

This first draft wasn’t . . . bad, but it wasn’t exceptional either. There were a few platitudes and it was missing the magic element that would transport the reader.

Fortunately I was able to profit from a good friend’s wisdom to understand this. This is how it reads now.

I was destined to take root in France. I know that now, even if I didn’t know it back when I had the dream. This path was ordained for me as surely as my brown hair and green eyes, my ample flesh set on an Anglican frame. My path was ordained for me as surely as yours was, even if it’s just a whispered promise from a distant dream. 

Of course it’s only now, mid-journey, that everything starts to form a picture that resembles something—the rich-hued threads of identity woven together, the nearly forgotten events tied in tiny silk knots—all this has transformed itself into a tapestry of a story, almost without my perceiving it. 

My journey begins in Avignon, on the bare fringes of adulthood. It seems fitting, somehow, that my story would start in a place that was both the beginning of a path taken and the source of closure—the healing of a wound that had been gouged out by grief. It wasn’t with any set purpose that I returned to Provence in the time of my sadness, but our family’s visit there collided in sharp contrast—who I had been, with who I was now—the hope with the loss, with the hope again. And it was with this sense of heightened awareness that I walked down the broad cobblestone streets towards the Pope’s palace in Avignon for the first time in twenty-three years. 

I kept holding off from taking pictures, confident that I would stumble upon that special square or shop or street that would unleash all the memories from a period I now regard as a turning point. I kept looking around for something to hold onto that would bring me full circle, but two decades soften the details. Time shrouds in foreignness what was once a significant city to me. 

I was nineteen when I landed on French soil for the first time, shedding everything that was familiar and comfortable in my decision to study abroad junior year. And in the strangeness that had given way to daily habit, I stepped off the city bus in the small town center of Montfavet, and started walking towards the house I was staying in for those few months. I was alone on this particular day, as my roommate, Jamie, had decided to linger a bit in Avignon. The small non-descript square, which held the bus stop, led to the country road away from city traffic and bus fumes. And I was grateful, for once, that I lived so far outside the city.

My surroundings were delightfully foreign to me. The pastures on the right where sheep grazed were quartered into small, green patches of grass by low-lying trees and tall bushes. The scent of burning leaves brought gentle notions of fall to my senses, without accosting my nostrils. A few large stone manors intermingled with more modern houses—the former set back on the hill and the latter bordering the street with thick cement fences. Just ahead on my left was a larger field with a straight row of tall trees, dividing the space in two. Breathing in the crisp air on this deserted road was like breathing in the spirit of adventure.

It’s a bit long for an example, but I wanted you to see what I was talking about. Now the readers know right off the bat that a dream was involved in directing my steps. They know that some tragic event sent me back there, even if my return wasn’t intentionally timed. They get a hint of how I felt as a young student - that I was experiencing culture shock, but that I had a taste for adventure.  This will (hopefully) encourage the reader to continue reading and find out where the adventure led me, how the dream came into play, and what sad event led to my wishing to return and begin telling my story. The desired result is that the reader is kept on the edge of his seat by your life’s events.

I suppose in this way memoir-writing does not differ all that much from fiction!


At seventeen, Jennie Goutet has a dream that she will one day marry a French man and sets off to Avignon in search of him. Though her dream eludes her, she lives boldly—teaching in Asia, studying in Paris, working and traveling for an advertising firm in New York.

When God calls her, she answers reluctantly, and must first come to grips with depression, crippling loss, and addiction before being restored. Serendipity takes her by the hand as she marries her French husband, works with him in a humanitarian effort in East Africa, before settling down in France and building a family.

Told with honesty and strength, A Lady in France is a brave, heart- stopping story of love, grief, faith, depression, sunshine piercing the gray clouds—and hope that stays in your heart long after it’s finished.

Buy Now @ Amazon
Genre – Memoir
Rating – PG-13
More details about the author
Connect with Jennie Goutet on Facebook & Twitter


Back to top!