Should I Write a Memoir?

Guest Post by Irene Watson

I get this question asked a lot, and the second sentence usually goes like:

I have so much to say about my life.

My question:

Who would be interested in reading about you?

Answer:

Everyone.

Today, everyone wants to write a book, and everyone believes he or she has a story worth telling. The marketplace is flooded with memoirs, but telling a linear life story tends to be uninteresting and lacking in purpose.

Should you write your memoir? Absolutely. Will anyone other than your family and closest friends want to read it? Probably not. How can you change that situation? Understand that no one cares about your life story unless you can answer your reader’s question, “What’s in it for me?” In order to write a memoir that will sell, especially if you’re not already famous, you need to focus on what will make your readers’ time investment in reading the book pay off for them.

Today, the term “memoir” is very popular, more so than the term “autobiography.” These terms are probably interchangeable, but if there is a difference, it’s that an autobiography is a linear life story, while a memoir focuses on a particular time in a person’s life or a specific theme or concern about that life.

Let’s face it. Autobiographies can be boring. They usually begin with the person’s birth, or in some cases, a family history of the parents and grandparents before the person is born. Then they go over the events of childhood (usually uneventful), school, career, relationships, etcetera, and guess how they end? Because the person writing the book is the subject, the person doesn’t die, but usually death is the only detail not included because the autobiography is written at the end of the person’s life. Because the person had a long life and many experiences, some of those events will interest readers but most of them will not. Short of the person’s children and close family members, it’s unlikely any reader is going to find the entire book interesting, which means readers will skip over parts, or worse, give up halfway through the book.

A memoir resolves this problem by focusing on a significant event or time in a person’s life while giving very little additional information, save what is necessary, about other parts of the person’s life. Really good memoirs have focus. They have a message they want to convey to the reader, and the entire book is written to get that message across.

Even memoirs that are focused on a specific aspect of a person’s life can have more information than needed. For example, if the person is writing about how she overcame child abuse, it may not be necessary to detail every little episode of abuse that occurred—I don’t mean to belittle abuse as a serious incident by saying that, but simply want you to understand that if your stepfather beat you throughout your childhood, we don’t need to know what he did to you on May 8, 1962, June 1, 1962, July 16, 1962, and August 3, 1962. It might be sufficient to say that your father beat you with his belt on several occasions and describe one of those occasions as an example. While it is important to be truthful, nothing is wrong with combining a few events into one scene to convey the overall impression you want the reader to have about your abuse rather than boring the reader with repeating details over and over.

Remember, “What’s in it for me?” is the key question your readers are going to ask about your book, so it’s the question you need to ask and answer for yourself. Descriptions of ninth grade geometry and geography classes aren’t going to benefit the reader who is looking for an inspirational story about how to overcome abuse, which is why, in the example above, you would leave such details out. For every sentence, paragraph, and scene you write, go back and edit while asking yourself, “Is this relevant? Do I need it? Will it benefit my reader to have this information?”

Write your memoir, but write it with focus, always keeping your readers in mind and delivering via the written word what will help them—what will inspire or teach them to live better lives because you shared your story. Leave out the boring parts, the family histories, the reminiscing for the fun of it, personal likes and opinions that become unneeded digressions, and deliver a final product that fulfills your reader’s needs and answers his or her question, “What’s in it for me?”

If you are willing to do that, then go ahead and write your memoir but also keeping in mind the readership may not extend your family and friends.

What are your thoughts on this? 

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find  reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.

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Posted on April 1, 2012, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. If you can make it an entertaining and informative read, then why not write your memoir? People read to learn and be entertained.My memoir, MY FORTY-FIVE YEARS IN HOLLYWOOD…AND HOW I ESCAPED ALIVE was published in 2010 and, although it's never achieved "best seller" status, it sells regularly and well. Recently, at a celebrity autograph convention, a man came up to me, and said "I bought your book here last year and read it in one day." He then purchased a copy of my new book, a volume of short stories.It makes me feel good, particularly when a young person who wants to get into show business buys my book. By their reading about my life experiences, I feel am helping them.In fact, I'm seriously thinking of writing a second memoir about Hollywood life that would include stories that I didn't have room for in the first one.

  2. I did a memoir, too – about my family mostly – because the readers of the blog that I contributed too loved the essays that I had posted about my parents, and grandparents, and of my brothers and sister and I, growing up suburban in the late baby boom years. My mother did say that I made her and Dad much more interesting and eccentric than I thought they were.I actually didn't think my early life was all that interesting, but the snippits that I posted about it apparently were. I ordered the essays and put them into a book, and it still has a sale now and again … much to my surprise.

  3. Chuck McCann

    Irene, don't know if you have left for your hospital (Vacation) yet, but I have a question. With your permission I wish to print off your article for the library writer group I guide. Some meetings are slim, Not enough people solitary, other times one or two more. I await your answer.

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