Who cares? is one of the most common assaults memoir writers are subjected to, and it’s usually lobbed at them by their own inner critic. Memoir writers face critical voices—their own and others’—who state that the story/message/idea is trivial, boring, not worth sharing. It’s so important for memoirists to get past these messages in order to set free the story that wants to be told. Here are some tips for memoir writers, especially those struggling with their inner critics, whose primary goal is to engage readers.
I’ve been teaching memoir writing for nearly six years, and acquiring and editing memoir for eight years before that. I’ve read every kind of memoir there is. It’s rare these days that I come across stories or topics or themes I’ve never before seen—or edited or published. Only a few have truly unusual or extraordinary stories. And that’s not what makes memoir most resonate with readers. Sometimes the most mundane and everyday subjects are the ones that have the most impact—because they’re relatable, and therefore helpful.
1. Remember That the Ordinary is Extraordinary
Memoirs don’t sell because they’re sensationalistic. They sell because readers see aspects of themselves in the pages. Some of the best-selling memoirs of all time are about the simplest and most universal of topics. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking are about grief; Koren Zailckas’s Smashed and Augusten Burroughs’s Dry are about addiction; Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior and Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass are about relationships. Memoir is not a trauma contest, though certainly it’s okay if trauma has fueled your experience. You want to bring what’s true to the page, but your everyday insights and how you make sense of your own experience is worth more to readers than any hype or extreme experience you might think you need to have in order to hook readers.
2. Theme is Queen
If you’re setting out to write the story of your whole life, stop and consider what it is about your life that’s compelling you to write. Perhaps other people have said you had an extraordinary upbringing, or maybe you were the successful CEO of a company and you have life lessons you want to impart. Maybe you have a story of how you transformed through living abroad or becoming a mother. Whatever it is, consider theme. Theme is bigger than just the subject or a topic of your memoir because it also encompasses the message you want to impart to your reader. Your theme could be love addiction, abandonment, spiritual transformation, how you healed your own rift with your mother by becoming a mother yourself. It matters less what your theme is and more that you know what it is so you can ask yourself as you write—am I on topic? Am I writing on theme? Doing so allows you to later appeal to an audience who wants to read the book you’ve written.
3. Turn the Mirror Outward
Too often memoirists are so focused on their own story that they forget—or don’t realize—that memoir is as much for the reader as it is for the writer, if not more so. People don’t read memoir because they want to read about the writer per se. This is why celebrities more often write autobiographies—tell-alls that encompass their whole lives. Although more and more celebrities are writing memoirs, it’s a genre made famous by non-celebrities. Memoirs home in ordinary experiences, and the best writers consciously share their insights by offering the reader what’s called a “takeaway.” Takeaways are deliberate moments in the manuscript where writers turn outward, acknowledging the universal human emotion or experience they’re sharing on the page. Memoir is not and should not be a purely self-focused event. The best of them speak to the human condition.
4. Don't Be Afraid to Go Slow
Memoir is composed of scenes, and scenes are composed of the countless details of a moment—the where, what, who, when, how. Most memoirists I teach and coach move too quickly through their scenes. They don’t share the sensual details that allow readers to feel like they’re right there, walking alongside the writer. It’s essential to go slow, and to ditch the inner critic who wants to convince you that slow equals boring. You’re painting a picture for your reader. You’re inviting them to places they’ve likely never been. The more you can make these moments complete with detail, the more the reader feels like they’re fully immersed in your story.
5. Be Courageous and Tell Your Truth
This may seem obvious, since memoir is supposed to be true, but writers too often get busy protecting others, which can lead to omitting or sharing half-truths. And memoir is a creative exercise. Scene and character composites are part of memoir writing, as is the necessary recreation of certain details and dialogue. The whole truth will feel scary. It will likely push you to the edge of your physical and emotional discomfort. For better or worse, this is where you engage readers, and it’s also where you find your voice. Your voice lies in your willingness to be real with your readers. Readers are craving connection, and when you show up fully you’ll find that the content of what you’re sharing is less important than what sense you make of what happened. It’s how you interpret what happened for the reader that gives them a takeaway and engages their hearts and minds.
Memoir is a slice of life, so it’s important to scale back, narrow the scope, and be selective about which personal experiences are going to make the cut, while also silencing your inner critic.