What do I need to know about writing my memoir?

September 27, 2012 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Someone wrote to ask, “So what do we need to keep in mind when creating memoir?”

Fist, keep in mind there’s a difference between “memoir” and “autobiography.” An autobiography is a straight retelling of one’s life — what happened, what were the events/decisions, what did those result in. A memoir is a more personal narrative of the significant change points in one’s life. It doesn’t have to be linear, whereas an autobiography is almost always linear. And the focus of a memoir can be more on the effects in your personal life — what you were feeling, what you learned, how you changed. The end result is almost always on a catharsis of some kind. So while the goal of autobiography is to get the facts straight, the goal of memoir is something more akin to “revealing myself and my story, in order to reveal principles that will help others live more effectively.” (This isn’t a dictionary definition, it’s a MacGregor Definition.)

Second, people understand the world best through story, so that’s how you have to think. What are the stories that reveal your life and your character? What stories happened to you that changed you?  You see, if you’re not a celebrity, nobody really cares about your everyday life (and, to tell you the truth, I’ve never cared to read celebrity biographies very much because…well, I don’t care about THEIR everyday life either). If someone wanted to understand my life, to see who I am and why, they wouldn’t care about a cold retelling of the facts. They’d rather hear some of my story — my dad’s conversation with me one morning just before he committed suicide, the person who told me I could write, my success as a writer, my failure as a publisher, my mom’s ugly death, the miracle that occurred in my car, the fact that people have stayed with me when I was a jerk, etc. I think if an author can get the stories down, tell them honestly and with a strong voice, they’re well on the way to creating memoir.

Third, most memoirs are about moving forward and finding answers, not about moving toward destruction. Every fiction writer knows an audience likes a redemption story best. So don’t just tell me about all your mistakes — show me. Don’t assume I’m interested in something just because you are. Make me like you before you dump dirt. If I’m not feeling sympathy for you, I’m going to stop reading. And don’t share a bunch of bad stuff about your family, thinking your catharsis is necessarily fascinating reading to others. Again, story will trump a recitation of events. (In I WENT TO THE ANIMAL FAIR, Heather Harpham reveals the presence of some mental illness in her family by telling the story of visiting her grandmother’s house one day and finding toast nailed to the wall. Her entire family was there, but nobody talked about it. They all pretended they didn’t see it, or maybe that toast on the wall was a routine occurrence. It’s a fascinating detail.)

I often get people sending me their personal story — “THIS happened to me, and everybody tells me I should write a book about it!” My response is usually a yawn. Yes, I’m a spiritual person who believes God is alive and doing great things. Yes, miracles still happen. And yes, lives get changed in incredible ways, sometimes through supernatural power and sometimes through dumb luck, and the re-telling of that can be valuable (after all, people have been telling dramatic stories since cave men sat around the fire telling whoppers about the great mastodon hunt). But the fact that something amazing happened to you doesn’t have much to do with the creation of a great memoir. The whole “personal story” book era has come and gone (circa 1977). Like I said yesterday, nobody is buying your personal story.

So fourth, the quality of the craft is essential. If you can write exceptionally well, and reveal yourself on the page, and get beyond the retelling of WHAT happened in order to get us to think about the greater issues of HOW that changed you and WHY that’s important and WHAT the principles for living more effectively are, THEN you’ve got the potential to write a memoir.  As a reader I’ve got to relate to your character, trust that you’re being honest, be interested/entertained by your story, and expect you to relate to timeless questions about life faced in complex circumstances. I want to read about the decisions you made, knowing those decisions might not have been right, and then read about the results. If all those things come into play, you’ve got potential with your memoir. It’s not a recounting of an entire life; it’s the well-written, thoughtful story of an author in a season of time.

So I suppose it’s fair to ask what some good examples are. I can think of several…

– Anne Lamott’s TRAVELING MERCIES. Her spiritual pilgrimage is interesting and inspirational, and her writing is fabulous.

– Jeanette Walls’ THE GLASS CASTLE has fabulous writing and tells a story you’ll long remember.

– Haven Kimmel’s A GIRL NAMED ZIPPY is a hilarious look at growing up in a small town.

-Lauren Winner’s GIRL MEETS GOD is a dynamite book, and one of those projects that I continually wonder why it isn’t talked about more often.

-Jenny Lawson’s LET’S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED is a riot, and (mostly) true.

-Madeleine L’Engle’s TWO PART INVENTION is the story of her marriage, and A CIRCLE OF QUIET is a contemplative book with a grand theme.

There are others. A friend of mine, Lisa McKay is just releasing LOVE AT THE SPEED OF EMAIL, which I think is charming. (Got my hard copy today!) What memoir writing do you appreciate?

 

Posted in Favorite Books, The Writing Craft, Trends

7 Comments to “What do I need to know about writing my memoir?”

  1. Very helpful post, Chip — thanks! I loved The Glass Castle. Amazing writing, amazing story.

  2. I loved Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber. I suspect it wasn’t entirely true–there were some things that seemed a little too convenient. But that she could go to one of the centers of academic, intellectual (read athiest) settings and find Christ amazes me.

  3. Melissa Tagg:

    Ahh that list at the end of your post just ballooned my to-be-read pile. :)

  4. Cherry Odelberg:

    Oh, thank you, glad to have the difference between memoir and autobiography clarified. I think I’ll continue to write fiction – based on experience, of course. That way I can make the characters do what they should have done.

  5. Some stories are better left untold, Chip…to protect the guilty :-)….maybe I’ll write it as fiction someday.

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