Writing a Memoir People Will Want to Read
Guest Post by Irene Watson
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. Finding a dominant theme to focus on and asking yourself what your readers will want to know can make your memoir stand out from the countless others.
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.
As an example, a politician might write about the most important decision he had to make in his life that made national headlines. The message is that he made that decision because he felt it was the best thing for the country. The supporting evidence for that message means a look at the relationships, events, and influences upon his life that led him to that moment. If the decision had to do with healthcare legislation, then it would be appropriate to include mention of his mother’s death from a disease when he was eight years old because that experience would be relevant to how he came to form his opinions about healthcare. However, it would not be relevant or appropriate to have an entire chapter devoted to childhood games and playing trucks in the backyard with his cousins. While it might be fun for the author to reminisce about happy moments from his childhood, the reader is not interested in the author’s Tonka trucks. The reader is interested in understanding why the author believes what he does about healthcare.
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.
Writing good transitions in your memoir is especially important; you want to summarize and quickly pass over the unimportant events and focus on the significant ones. A good memoir writer will tell his or her story like it was a good novel. Rather than writing long descriptive passages, the author can create episodic scenes to make the book effective. Choose five or ten key moments in your life and build scenes around those events. You can then summarize the events that happened between those events rather than going into details. For example, if your stepfather sexually abused you when you were in eighth grade, and then you had your first sexual encounter with a boy when you were in tenth grade, we don’t need a whole chapter about ninth grade. It might be sufficient to write a sentence or short paragraph, such as:
“When I reached ninth grade, my mother left my stepfather and my life seemed to be back in order. My grades improved, and I began to forget about the abuse I had experienced. I also began to notice the boys in my class without any longer feeling intimidated by them. Soon the boys were asking me out to the dances, and although I said, ‘No’ several times, eventually this boy I really liked, named Chad, asked me to the homecoming dance in tenth grade and I accepted.”
That short paragraph might be sufficient to describe two years of your life that weren’t really relevant to your overall story of abuse. But it might be the opening paragraph of an entire chapter about your relationship with Chad and how he abused you, which is highly relevant to the story.
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?”
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.