Six Ways to Make Your Memoir Memorable
Six Ways to Make Your Memoir Memorable
By Rochelle Melander
I’m trying to tell you something about my life/Maybe give me insight between black and white
—Emily Saliers, Closer to Fine
I admit it: I’m a book junkie. I seek out books hoping for a fix—something that will help me face challenge, overcome crisis, and move forward. In Women Who Run With The Wolves, Clariss Pinkola Estes says it this way:
“Art is important for it commemorates the seasons of the soul, or a special or tragic event in the soul’s journey. Art is not just for oneself, not just a marker of one’s own understanding. It is also a map for those who follow after us.” (p. 15)
For me, stories provide better maps than how-to books. That’s why I devour memoirs: to learn how other people have navigated life’s challenges. After reading more than 100 memoirs (and writing one myself), here’s a short list of what I think makes a memoir rich and interesting:
1. Life sucks (sometimes) but we survive. I appreciate memoirs that reveal how someone faced and overcame life’s difficulties. After all, who wants to read about happy? As William Zinsser said in his book, Writing about Your Life, “Happy is bad news for writers.” (p. 11) We want to read about the tough experiences: brain tumors, abuse, cancer, difficult parents and rebellious children. We don’t want to hear about anyone’s shiny, happy life. That would be boring. And hopefully, as we read about how the author overcame stuff, we are able to figure out our lives and crawl over our own hurdles as well.
2. Laughter is part of the human survival kit! In Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness: A Reluctant Memoir, Richard Cohen wrote, “I was not a victim. Nor did I want to be. Victim status embodies all that I reject about the struggles of life. The challenge is to live and function well under all circumstances, including those never anticipated, like illness.” (p. 101) One of the ways to rise above victim status is through humor. In her funny memoir, I Had Brain Surgery, What’s Your Excuse?, Suzy Becker shared how every aspect of her life had changed because of brain surgery. She did this in a large part through her cartoons.
3. Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant (Emily Dickinson). I like memoirs that take risks in the way they tell the story. Suzy Becker (I Had Brain Surgery) did this by telling her stories through both words and cartoons. In Blue Suburbia, Laurie Lico Albanese used sparse poetry to tell her story about growing up in a distant home in American suburbia, the abuse she experienced at the hands of a neighbor, and her struggle to be happy with her ordinary adult life. Other memoirs tell their stories in bite-sized pieces. These short pieces make it easy for the reader to take in both big ideas and huge amounts of emotion. Mary Rose O’Reilley did this well in her book The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd. This book is part memoir, part collection of essays. The subtitle tells exactly what the book talks about: her apprenticeship work as both a shepherd and a Buddhist.
4.“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” (Anna Quindlen) The most effective memoirs take the reader along as the writer goes on an external pilgrimage as well as an internal journey of discovery. In the new memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed takes the reader on her hike of the Pacific Crest Trail and her interior journey overcoming the death of her mother and the end of her marriage. In Swinging on the Garden Gate, Elizabeth Andrew takes a bicycle trip. In Looking for Mary (or the Blessed Mother and Me) author Beverly Donofrio travels to Medjugorje—and embarks on a personal journey of faith.
5. It’s all in the details. Great memoirs use details to carry the story. They have a clear sense of place—because the physical landscape is also a reflection of the internal landscape. As Sue William Silverman says in Fearless Confessions, “Craft and slant external details that shed light on the internal emotions of you, the narrator. These images also enhance the atmosphere of the piece.” (p. 12)
6. Use your voice. You know voice when you read it. An author with a great voice can hold your attention even when she is talking about purchasing toilet paper. Sue William Silverman cautions memoir writers in Fearless Confessions, “The voice of each piece you write needs its own tone, rhythm, vocabulary, and energy.” (p. 51)
Oh, I could go on and on. But I won’t. Now I want to hear from you: what makes a memoir great? Leave your comment on the blog or tweet about this post (using my handle @WriteNowCoach) for a chance to win a signed copy of Wild by Cheryl Strayed or a copy of Sue William Silverman’s book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Writing Memoir. I’ll announce the winners in next Tuesday’s newsletter and blog post.
PS! Don’t forget tomorrow’s Write Now! Mastermind class with memoirist Sue William Silverman who will talk about How to Write a Memoir. We meet tomorrow April 25, 2012 at 12:00 PM CDT (Think Chicago). Sue William Silverman is an award-winning memoir author, a writing teacher in the MFA Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and the author of Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir.
I love reading memoirs, biographies, autobiographies. I don’t revel in the trauma and drama, but as part of the story I absorb every detail, every line. What makes a memoir great to me is when the author achieves the effect that it is he/she and me having an intimate talk over coffee or a glass of wine. A life story is being spilled out, I’m getting to know the author, and secrets are being told that, of course, I will keep confidential. Getting to peek into the back story of someone’s life–famous or not–has always fascinated me.
Yes! Peeking into the back story–what a great way to describe reading memoirs. Thank you!
I love it when a memoirist writes about the most simple, mundane things and turns them into beautiful episodes of life, a la Zinsser and Abigail Thomas. The best memoirs that I’ve read have left me wanting to meet the author afterward and ‘continue talking with them’ because that’s how I’ve felt when I was reading the book, like I already had a relationship with them.
Isn’t that true! In the hands of a good writer, every small act becomes worthy of notice. In a sense, it is an exercise in mindfulness. Thank you!
This is a wonderful post. I’ve been working on memoir for a while, and this is helpful. I especially like your quotes and book examples. Glad to have discovered your blog.
Glad to have you here. And thanks for the great feedback. Good luck with the memoir!
I think what makes a memoir great is truth. I love fiction. I love memoir more because the events really happened to a real person. There’s value in that connection with a real person. Besides, isn’t truth stranger — and more wonderful and amazing and courageous — than fiction?
Thank you. I agree–truth-telling makes a memoir great.
Thanks for these insights, Rochelle. I have a frequent caller who wants to know if I’ve had the negative feelings she’s experiencing. I don’t have a cache from which to share, but in your tip I gained a new perspective: maybe she’s looking to someone with similar experience for a way of overcoming, rather than to someone of different experience for an assurance that people who are ill are like people who aren’t ill, only more so.
I was surprised that happy is boring. I want writing that shows me how to do it right. I read a short memoir of a ballplayer who spent lots of time on behavior I thought should have been repented, not repeated. By contrast, I really liked Lois S. Patton’s A Bowl of Cherries because most of the time she behaved in ways I admire.
Beth, thanks for sharing the other side of the story–the ways in which reading happy stories can help shape us, too! Thank you!
I appreciated reading your “Five Ways..” post. It truly encouraged me in the writing of my memoir currently in progress. Thank you!
Good luck with your book! 🙂
Last year I read Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes. Now I’m reading the sequel,‘Tis. I think his honesty makes the books so compelling. Somehow he remembers incredible details from his childhood that allow the reader to visualize exactly what he experienced. The poverty he experienced elicits empathy. I can’t wait to finish the book to see if he overcame his alcoholism.
I love both of those books–what a treat. And I agree, he does a marvelous job with the details.