Your Memoir Can Be A Compelling Story
You may be a frequent memoir reader, or only pick one up now and again, but either way, you know that powerful memoirs can take you, the reader, on an exhilarating ride. If you’ve never read a memoir, pick one up, you’re in for a treat. Great memoirs have all the intrigue and excitement of fiction with the added bonus of knowing they really happened, making them that much more relatable.
I am both a memoir writer and reader and have identified some common elements that great memoirs all share. If you’re planning to write a memoir, here’s how to ensure you take your readers on a journey they won’t soon forget.
1. Take a Snapshot: Remember a memoir is not an autobiography. It is a snippet of a person’s life, a specific time and place but not the whole life story. An example of this can be found in the popular memoir Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed writes of her solo trek hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. There is a clear beginning and end point to her story, and a theme that centers around her journey.
2. Be Honest: Honesty is one of the best ways to write a powerful memoir. While we don’t want to hurt people we’ve written about, it’s important to tell the truth. How you tell the truth is what matters. Your motivation as a writer is to share your experience without bitterness, exaggeration, or judgment. Your story on its own is enough; let the reader decide how to absorb it.
3. Show Don’t Tell: This is the same advice writers get whenever there’s advice. If your grandfather was a “raging alcoholic,” saying this will sound judgmental. Give the reader a visual. Try writing something descriptive like:
Vodka bottles littered the kitchen floor and I learned not to open the blinds when I’d come in for breakfast. He sat slumped over the dining table most days, unmoving until near suppertime when he’d wake up and demand to be fed.
4. Bring Your Story to Life: People in memoirs are characters, they just happen to be real. Make sure to build strong characters with your people by showing us who they are, what they struggle with, how they live their lives. Mary Karr does this brilliantly in Lit, her memoir about getting sober, and in two sentences where she has this interaction with her husband:
I hiss at him, You’re such a control freak.
He says, You knew I was like that when you married me.
4. Create an Emotional Journey: The way to connect with your readers is through pivotal events happening in your narrative arc. In fiction, you have the luxury of creating an arc, but in memoir, life has its own narrative arcs that can be equally if not more rollercoaster-esque. When you find out your wife is cheating on you don’t simply say “I was upset” rather write something like:
I saw the bank statements and was shocked to see a hotel charge. We hadn’t been to a hotel in over a year. There were dinner and drinks for two. That was the night she said she’d gone to her sister’s. She lied to me.
Sharing Your Authentic Story
If you decide to write your memoir, follow these guidelines and they will help you to captivate your audience. Whatever you do, be sure to share your authentic story and you can’t go wrong.