Many people have lived wild and crazy lives, and want to put their experiences into a book by writing a memoir. They have something to say and desire to share their perceptions with the world.
Funny thing as well, many folks have led fairly ordinary lives, but have gleaned insights and epiphanies that they too want to share.
And either can make for a great memoir.
What trips up most folks coming into this endeavor—and which I see, as a book editor, quite often—is the actual creating of their lives on the page.
In short, if memoirs are to be embraced by readers (and isn’t that the point?), they need to contain all the great storytelling elements of a work of fiction.
But rarely does this happen.
People tend to begin at their own beginning, or even their ancestors’ beginnings, back in Slovenia or Ireland or Brazil. Then we get a chronology of what happened—again, often from birth—where, well, nothing much actually is happening except the person growing up, going to school, being annoyed by his little sister, etc.
In other words, tons of facts and mundane occurrences (which don’t make for riveting reading, except maybe to family members), little characterization, and no cohesive plot.
Although it may not seem like it from the outside looking in, memoirs—just like novels—have to have people in them. Real, flesh-and-blood, three-sided folks.
You know—the kind of fabulous characters you get to know in the best works of fiction.
And most importantly, they have to have the main character going through the entire arc of a storyline. And nothing else.
At this point, people often squeal a bit. “But I’m not writing a novel! I’m writing the story of my life. And where my grandparents came from and how they got here is important!”
Maybe. If your ancestors descended from Vikings of yore, or your lineage traces back to Henry VIII, yes, those are interesting tidbits.
But when writing a memoir, you still need to weave that in where it comes up organically in the story, rather than starting in the 1600s and coming forward a generation at a time.
One huge thing that hampers a memoir writer most is that this is his book. Pretty much his one and only book.
Which means the time hasn’t been spent learning the craft of writing, as someone would who has many books to write.
And worse still, since it’s about him, gaining enough distance from the main character to show him traveling the arc of the story (as any hero must) is almost like learning a foreign language.
which, in essence, it is. Nobody said this was easy!
The arc of a story is more than a beginning, middle, and end.
It includes those things of course, but each of the 3 Acts has specific plot points within them and pretty precise timing as per when to begin and end each act.
This arc cannot be stressed enough. It’s what separates great books from the rest.
Because to be successful, a memoir has to be a compelling read. And that’s evoked by bringing about all the elements of distinguished fiction and narrative nonfiction. Which is exactly what a great story does.
And again, including nothing else. Which proves to be the harder part of the equation for so many writers.
Due to a desire to get the whole story down, writers bury the important points under all the verbiage.
And remember—what you give weight to on the page (stage time) clues readers to its importance. You’re leading them down a road. And if the end of that road is a dead-end (i.e., nothing important happens), they won’t come back for the rest.
They’ll simply say they got bored and quit the book.
Is this daunting? Of course. But then, everything about writing well is daunting! There’s a lot to learn. A lot to incorporate. A lot of hair-pulling and whining and missteps.
On the flip side, that’s actually the good news too! Because becoming a successful author is about skills, and skills can be learned. As a book editor, this is exactly what I teach. It’s one thing to put words on a page, but another entirely to know what’s working and why, to understand what isn’t working and why, and to learn to fix the problems in order to write a great read.
In other words, it’s by learning those skills that you take a story—again, no matter the genre—and bring it to life for your reader.
This may look contrived from the outside, and I often hear: “But this is what happened! It doesn’t conform to how things occur in a made-up book!”
The thing is, it actually can and usually does and eventually must.
It’s by picking out the parts that matter, emphasizing those, and letting go of the ancillary material, that you end up with a real book rather than that compilation of rambling words. Add to that great characters along with prose that creates vivid pictures, and you end up with a book that sells.
So while writing a memoir may seem from the outside to be one of the easiest genres to master, the opposite is almost always the case.
But if writing a memoir is your goal, begin it! You, too, can learn the skills. And your life story just may end up being read by the masses.