Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On Writing Memoir

"Memoir is HOT. I should totally write one and cash in."

"My life is so interesting, it should totally be a book!"

"I'd love to write a memoir but I have trouble understanding what goes in do you write the story of your life?"

If you are a sometime reader of this little blog, you'd expect that the lines above are shoplifts, but they aren't.  They are parts of real conversations I've had with people -- writers and not-yet-writers alike -- in the last two weeks.

I've been musing on the subject of memoir because it keeps coming up, and what I think the discussions come down to is people wondering if they SHOULD write a memoir, if their stories are interesting enough, and if so what should they include.  I'm always a fan of encouraging people to write, and I've been searching for a concise way to express what I feel about this subject that still encourages people to work with the words.

From my perspective, memoir functions in two arenas:  commercial and non-commercial.  I make this distinction because while all personal stories and family histories are important, not all will be moneymakers.

If you have an interesting -- or even not-so-interesting -- life and want to chronicle your journey, or relate what you know of relative's journeys though this thing called life, as a way to document history for those who come after you, what a lovely gift to give the world.  But for me this might fall under the category of non-commercial.  An awesome endeavor, a potentially important one, but not one that is necessarily likely to sell a lot of copies outside your immediate family.  Family chronicles generally are of interest only to those whose families are chronicled. Important, but limited buying audience. Maybe.

To cross memoir over in the realm of commercial requires a platform of some sort, an angle which takes one's life story and creates something universal out if it.  In having this discussion I was asked several times, "How do I KNOW if I have a platform or an angle?"  Well, some are obvious.  Participation in historic events, major life changes, illness, recovery.  But some stories are small and personal and yet might have a great impact on readers out of their universal nature or message.

And I realized that from an audience perspective, memoir appeals to two primary groups who might be willing to spend money to read your story:  1) People who will never have your experience and will enjoy absorbing part of your life into their own, and 2) People who have had your experience and are happy that a story has been written to which they can relate.

For instance, I read Rhoda Janzen's "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress," and I adored it.  Funny, heartfelt, honest, and in some ways completely outside my life experience as I did not grow up in and then grow away from a Mennonite family.  Now I know a bit about what that would feel like, but also her stories were universal in the sense that everyone knows what it feels like to have weird family stuff and inter-family conflict in some way or another. Relatable.

If your life, or part of your life, would appeal to BOTH those groups, you have a memoir that is potentially commercial. 

In either case, commercial or non- you are obliged still to write the best, most interesting story you can. 

More on what actually goes in a memoir (and what you should leave out) in a future post.  For more reading on this topic though, William Zinsser (On Writing Well) has done some work in this arena and has a good approach to getting started, here on NPR.


  1. I'm writing fiction. But my husband has an ongoing geneology project that he works on from time to time. I'm writing with the intent to publish...someday. My hubby is working toward a family project for information. Once people pass, their life stories can be lost. He is preserving them with the intent of passing them down to our kids.

  2. Kristi -- I think it's awesome that your husband is documenting like that. So important for families to know their history!

  3. Great post Deb!
    So I don't really think my life is interesting enough to warrant a memoir but I do think my grandfather's life was - Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima survivor. I won't glorify him because he came back incredibly f-ed up but still his story and that of his FIVE brothers during WWII is some pretty cool stuff!

  4. I like weaving memoirs into my regular reads. A peek into a life truly lived by another whether famous or not can be pretty interesting for exactly the reasons you stated. Just recently my book club read "A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana". I was talking with my teenager about a couple of things in the book. He was curious why I'd read a story about this unknown woman. The interest was totally about the shared experience of growing up in a small town...relatable. One of my all-time favorite memoirs about a regular person is "Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned about Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat" by Gwen Cooper. Cannot even remember what enticed me to read about a blind cat and his owner...but as I of my all-time favorites!!

  5. I've never really wanted to write personal memoir, but I've read some great ones, and have considered weaving a bit of a story (creative memoir) on various family members who've had such interesting lives. One memoir that thrashed me was "Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found." Her story was moving, and she wrote a compelling and unusual story as conveyed through a child's eyes.

    Shannon at The Warrior Muse

  6. My whole life people have said to me - you should write your story into a book! And by whole life I mean from late elementary school on. Most of the time I think NO WAY.
    I'm not great at writing my own story in real time with real words
    i.e. see struggling blog.
    ANyway, writing a memoir, for me, looks harder than writing fiction. so I look forward to seeing your further notes on this.

  7. My aunt wants her story written. She has 38 children (at last count). 8 biological and 30 adopted. The adopted children are all those who may not be easily adopted. Down's syndrome, crack babies, name it. It's quite an incredible story. She wants me to write it. But I write romance. Besides I'm too close to it. Great post and very informative!

  8. I once was a very good niece who helped my great-aunt write and submit a memoir-type piece to some magazines. Despite my awesome writing :-) and my aunt's very personal and moving story, it turned out that the magazines did not feel it was right for their readers. I suspected as much prior to all the work, but my aunt as POSITIVE that everyone would want to hear her story. Hmmm. I wonder how many people have experienced this???