So, you want to write a memoir. You believe you have a story to tell. Say you’ve endured extraordinary experience and want to share your lessons and insights with others. You think your life journey will entertain and enlighten.
But, there’s more to crafting a memoir than sitting down and writing about your life. Yet this is the mistake many first-time memoir writers make. They forget that the point is to illuminate something for the reader. At its best, a memoir tells a complex, layered story that connects with readers in a deep way.
At its worst, a memoir can read as a one-sided diary or even a rant. Readers might ask, “What’s so special about this author’s story anyway?” Or, they may put it down and move on to something else more engaging. There are plenty of ways to ensure your memoir is a well-crafted, fulfilling story. Follow my tips below.
Here’s how to write a memoir without turning away readers:
1. Know it’s about the reader, not you.
True writers ask: How am I creating meaning or enlightening my readers’ lives? The most successful memoirs build bridges between the author’s experience and readers’ lives. The author must always have the reader in mind, striving to convey how this journey resonates on deeper human levels. This is the thrill of well-crafted memoirs: They invite the reader in. Even if the average reader’s experience is totally outside that of the author, a good memoir should still speak to them on a relatable level.
Some of the most acclaimed memoirs of all time deal with subjects and perspectives that many readers may know nothing about. Whether it’s a specific culture or ethnic group, or a rare life experience or trauma, the goal should be to connect to the reader.
Think of some classic memoirs and you’ll find a diverse cross-section of subject matters. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking; James McBrides’ The Color of Water; Augusten Burrough’s Running With Scissors; and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild come to mind. Each author told their stories in a way that strove to put readers into their shoes. (For more on the power of well-crafted storytelling in a memoir, see point #3). They wrote in a way that allowed readers to see from their perspectives. They also made themselves vulnerable. These authors are doing more than recounting their lives; they are sharing their failings, trials and tribulations, and ultimately, wisdom.
You want your reader to walk away with a lesson and a-ha moments. This won’t happen if you write a memoir that only relates a few things about your life. Instead, you need to show what you learned from it. This brings me to…
2. Be careful of throwing a pity party.
You might have noticed from the above list that many of these memoirs dwell on tough topics: death, racism, sexual abuse, and more. Yet, these authors hardly threw a pity party. They knew that grumbling or being overly negative was not a way to connect to and inform their readers.
But, I see this all the time in memoir drafts. Writers slip into passage after passage of complaining, blaming, or bemoaning their lot in life. Even if an author intends for their memoir to spread knowledge, it’s easy to stumble into cynical bellyaching. This may happen even when it’s not your intent. It makes sense. When delving into tough topics, or trying to be objective about one’s own life, separating strong emotions like anger, regret, or mourning can be like trying to remove the milk from your coffee.
The biggest reader turn-off? Using your memoir as a receptacle for your anger, or finger-pointing. Sure this may be cathartic for you. But save it for your journal writing. No one wants to read a book drenched in negativity. Your memoir should not be about you trying to work out your stuff on the page. Rather, focus on what your experience taught you and what wisdom you can share that readers can apply to their own lives. This is why it’s important to find an editor for your memoir. An outsider’s honest eye can provide the sound feedback you need to craft a balanced tale.
3. Don’t forget you’re telling a story.
Just because a book is classified as a “memoir” doesn’t mean authors can’t borrow as many techniques from fiction as possible. Don’t forget to describe someone in your life in as much rich depth as you would a character in a novel. Embrace sensory detail. Strive to transport your readers into your life. Show, don’t tell. Structure your story in a way that reinforces your journey. As the protagonist of this tale, your arc should reflect the same kinds of transformations of a great novel.