The holidays are here, bringing lots of parties, which means connecting with old friends and reflecting on your life and the year that has passed. What better time to get serious about putting together that memoir you’ve been thinking about?
Your memoir can be anything from an informal collection of anecdotes about your summers at Camp Kineowatha in Maine to a careful literary exploration of the years you spent in Kenya with the Peace Corps or your early days as Andy Warhol’s personal advisor. It can be a print book or an e-book or both. It can be primarily for your friends and family or for the whole world. But, before you start making notes—and probably feeling bad about all those questions you forgot to ask your grandparents—there are a few things you need to know about how to write a memorable memoir.
First, you have a decision to make. Do you want to write an autobiography or a memoir? This is a distinction I hadn’t thought much about until recently, but it’s important to know the difference. An autobiography is usually the chronological story of your whole life, told by you and filled with facts as you remember them or have researched them. A memoir (from the French word for memory or reminiscence) is more impressionistic. It can shift back and forth in time and is often more intimate and revealing than an autobiography. You might think of your memoir as fragments from your autobiography. Memoir writers tend to concentrate on a story or two from their lives, turning points, or formative emotional experiences. Let’s take a close look at what goes into writing a successful memoir.
“Memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us,” William Zinsser writes in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. “Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events. With that feat of manipulation, they arrive at a truth that is theirs alone, not quite like that of anybody else who was present at the same events.”
Writing a successful memoir isn’t easy. Prying open the door to parts of your life you may have tried to keep secret, perhaps even from yourself, can be a painful but healing experience. It requires discipline, scrupulous honesty, a sharp focus, and structure—beginning, middle, and end; emotional tension; conflict and resolution; and a likable protagonist (that’s you) who doesn’t wallow in self-pity, at least not very often.
But what’s the biggest secret of all when it comes to the success of your memoir? Voice. “Most memoirs fail because of voice,” Mary Karr writes in The Art of Memoir, cautioning would-be memoirists that, if readers “don’t believe or trust the voice” or are “not curious about the inner or outer lives of the writer,” the writer “is dead in the water.”
But here’s some good news. Once you’ve completed your memoir, you no longer have to pass muster with a literary agent to find a traditional publisher to get your book out there. Once your manuscript is completed, edited, and copyedited, you can make it available online in a matter of days. You can also do all the other things you’ve learned to do as an indie author: start building your platform (or leverage the one you already have in place) and determine your niche. If your story is about your early career as a race car driver, start connecting with NASCAR fans and bloggers who write about racing. Or maybe you were one of the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall: contact bloggers who write about dancing, show biz, Christmas in New York, and dancing schools.
Writing a memoir is a brave and often rewarding thing to do. It takes courage and passion and a lot of hard work. Mary Karr puts it this way: “To bring oneself to others makes the whole planet less lonely. The nobility of everybody trying boggles the mind.”