In our book The Backpack Years, my husband James and I wrote two parallel, intertwining memoirs. After hearing about our project, many people jokingly ask if we are still married. Yes, we are still married, and it was an amazing experience. The process of writing a memoir was actually made easier while working with a partner.
Compelling fictional characters are well-developed: readers know their likes and dislikes, quirks, and secrets. We need this background to understand why a character acts in certain ways or makes certain decisions. And so we can see when they grow.
In a memoir, the author is the main character and needs to be as developed as any fictional character. As the person closest to your main character, it can be difficult, even impossible sometimes, to pinpoint these details about yourself. Being a memoirist requires a level of scrutiny and self-analysis that many people never have the pleasure of experiencing.
At some point, most of us have asked ourselves: “Why did I do that?” For your character’s actions to make sense in a memoir, you have to ask to analyze the cause and effect of every action, to ask “Why did I do that?” about every decision you have ever made. Why did I quit that job? Why did I dump that guy? Why did I start that fight?
This is where writing with your partner is an advantage. My husband and I know each other better than we know ourselves and are very familiar with the events of our lives.
For an early chapter, I struggled while writing about a previous break-up. Beta readers reported that they didn’t feel closure about the relationship. James read the chapter and pinpointed what was missing: some key details that wrapped the story up on an emotional level for the reader. I had subconsciously been avoiding them because they were tough to relive and something I’d always felt guilty about. But James was right. After I rewrote the ending, the chapter was much better.
Writing as a couple has improved our skills as writers and storytellers, and made each of our memoirs much better than it would have been if we were writing alone. The Backpack Years is two memoirs in one, but I think this process made it greater than the sum of its parts.
Stefanie and James Wilson met and Sydney and live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They enjoy travelling often, and when they aren’t on the road, they spend time with family and explore the outdoors. The Backpack Years is their first book.