Whether you curl up with memoirs on a frequent basis or pick one up every now and again, you know powerful memoirs have the capacity to take you, as a reader, for an exhilarating ride.
I’m a connoisseur of memoirs. In the past seven years, I might have read three books that weren’t part of the memoir genre. Not only do I devour memoirs, I also have written my own, and I coach memoir writers on turning their memories into manuscripts.
By dissecting memoirs from both the reader’s and writer’s perspectives, I’ve identified common elements that powerful, compelling memoirs all share. If you’re planning to write a memoir, here’s how to make sure your story takes your readers on a journey they won’t forget.
1. Narrow your focus
Your memoir should be written as if the entire book is a snapshot of one theme of your life. Or consider it a pie, where your life represents the whole pie, and you are writing a book about a teeny-tiny sliver.
Your memoir is not an autobiography. The difference is that an autobiography spans your entire life, and a memoir focuses on one particular moment or series of moments around a theme. You want your readers to walk away knowing you, and that one experience, on a much deeper level.
Perhaps you are familiar with Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. This memoir focuses on Frank’s life as a first-generation immigrant child in Brooklyn. Angela is his mother, and much of the storyline focuses on her and how Frank saw her, as well as the role she played in trying to hold the entire family together.
2. Include more than just your story
I know I just instructed you to narrow down your focus, but we need to think bigger in our writing pursuits.
For example, if Hillary Clinton wrote a memoir about raising a child in the White House, she would be pulling in tidbits about how she handled the media, who she let visit her daughter during sleepovers and how she navigated the politics of parenting during her time in the White House.
Likewise, if Madonna was writing a memoir about reinventing herself after 20 years away from the public spotlight, she most likely would include what it felt like to return to the music scene and how she continued to travel and perform while raising her children.
How does this apply to you? Imagine you are writing a memoir about your three-week trek through the Himalayan Mountains. While the focus is on your trip, as well as what you learned about yourself along the way, it would be wise to include other details as well.
You could describe the geography and history of the area, share interesting snippets about the people and donkeys you interacted with, and discuss your exploration of life-and-death questions as you progressed along your arduous journey.
Your readers want to know about you, but it’s the backstory and vivid details that make for a powerful memoir.
3. Tell the truth
One of the best ways to write a powerful memoir is to be honest and genuine. This is often tricky, because we don’t want to hurt or upset the people (our family and friends!) we’ve written into our books. But it’s important that you tell the truth — even if it makes your journey as an author more difficult.
When I wrote my memoir,Breaking the Silence: My Final Forty Days as a Public School Teacher, I knew I had a major dilemma: If I opted to tell the whole truth, I would pretty much ensure I would never get a job with New York City Public Schools again.
But I also knew teachers, parents and administrators needed to hear why great teachers are leaving education in droves and why the current educational system is not doing what’s right for our nation’s kids. I wrote my book with brutal honesty, and it has paid off with my readers — and is bringing national attention to what is happening behind closed school doors.
One more note on honesty: Memoirs explore the concept of truth as seen through your eyes. Don’t write in a snarky manner or with a bitter tone. The motivation for writing a memoir shouldn’t be to exact revenge or whine or seek forgiveness; it should simply be to share your experience.
Don’t exaggerate or bend the truth in your memoir. Your story, the unique one that you hold and cherish, is enough. There is no need to fabricate or embellish.
4. Put your readers in your shoes
Powerful writers show, not tell. And for a memoir writer, this is essential to your success, because you must invite your reader into your perspective so she can draw her own conclusions.
The best way to do this is to unfold the story before your reader’s eyes by using vivid language that helps him visualize each scene.
Perhaps you want to explain that your aunt was a “raging alcoholic.” If you say this directly, your description will likely come across as judgmental and critical. Instead, paint a picture for your audience so they come to this conclusion on their own. You might write something like this:
“Vodka bottles littered her bedroom, and I had learned, the hard way, not to knock on her door until well after noon. Most days she didn’t emerge into our living quarters until closer to sunset, and I would read her facial expression to gauge whether or not I should inquire about money — just so I could eat one meal before bedtime.”
5. Employ elements of fiction to bring your story to life
I like to think of the people in memoirs as characters. A great memoir pulls you into their lives: what they struggle with, what they are successful at and what they wonder about.
Many of the best memoir writers focus on a few key characteristics of their characters, allowing the reader to get to know each one in depth. Your readers must be able to love your characters or hate them, and you can’t do that by providing too much detail.
Introduce intriguing setting details and develop a captivating plot from your story. Show your readers the locations you describe and evoke emotions within them. They need to experience your story, almost as if is was their own.
6. Create an emotional journey
Don’t aim to knock your readers’ socks off. Knock off their pants, shirt, shoes and underwear too! Leave your readers with their mouths open in awe, or laughing hysterically, or crying tears of sympathy and sadness — or all three.
Take them on an emotional journey which will provoke them to read the next chapter, wonder about you well after they finish the last page, and tell their friends and colleagues about your book. The best way to evoke these feelings in your readers is to connect your emotions, as the protagonist, with pivotal events happening throughout your narrative arc.
Most of us are familiar with the narrative arc. In school, our teachers used to draw a “mountain” and once we reached the precipice, we were to fill in the climatic point of the book or story. Your memoir is no different: You need to create enough tension to shape your overall story, as well as each individual chapter, with that narrative arc.
That moment when you realized your husband had an affair? Don’t just say you were sad, angry or devastated. Instead, you might say something like:
“I learned of my husband’s affair when the February bank statements arrived and I realized that in one month’s time, he had purchased a ring and two massages at a high-end spa.
Those gifts weren’t mine. He was using our money to woo another lady and build a new life. I curled up in a ball and wept for three hours — I had been demoted to the other woman.”
Will you write a memoir?
When you follow these guidelines while writing your memoir, you will captivate your audience and leave them begging for more. But more importantly, you will share your own authentic story with the world.
Have you written or are you planning to write a memoir?
This post originally ran in April 2015. We updated it in April 2017.
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Filed Under: Craft
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Years ago, when I lived in Boston and worked for The Horn Book Magazine, novelist and children’s author Alice Hoffman read her work at a local bookstore. After her reading, a woman in the audience asked Hoffman what she recommended for an aspiring writer who had started several novels but hadn’t finished them.
Without missing a beat, Hoffman replied, “Start short.” She explained that short stories provided an opportunity to practice craft on a scale more manageable and easier to sustain than the long-form demands of a novel.
Since that gathering back in the 1990s, short form narratives have proliferated, and the “short-short” story, known as flash fiction, has become increasingly popular.
Memoir, too, has its short forms. The “memoir essay,” to borrow a phrase Adam Gopnik uses in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2008, is an essay-length memoir, generally in the neighborhood of 2000 to 6000 words.
Short-short memoir essays—those under 2,000 words but more commonly in the under 1,000-words range—go by the term “flash memoir,” or “flash creative nonfiction.”
What Is Flash Memoir?
First, let’s define memoir in general.
Memoir is a sliver—or slice—of your life experience. (Memoir is not the story of your entire life—that would be autobiography.) This slice of life becomes the lens through which you tell a particular memoir story.
At the heart of every memoir, beneath the surface story of events, is a deeper story truth. This deeper truth imbues the memoir with meaning as the author makes sense of her experience. I always come back to Vivian Gornick on this point: “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
If a book-length memoir is a slice of life, then a flash memoir is a moment. But that moment is not necessarily bound by time. It is, rather, a singular instance of insight—a “flash,” if you will—that imbues even the shortest piece of memoir with meaning.
What do I mean by meaning?
In his preface to In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfictionedited by Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones, Bernard Cooper writes, “To write short nonfiction requires an alertness to detail, a quickening of the senses, a focusing of the literary lens, so to speak, until one has magnified some small aspect of what it means to be human.”
The flash in “flash memoir” refers to its brevity, yes, but it also—and more importantly—refers to its “flash” of insight into human experience.
Like a book-length memoir, a flash memoir engages readers at an emotional level so that they come away changed by a new level of understanding, however subtle, into what it means to be human. In other words, a brief memoir essay carries with it the power to move readers.
As Cooper also says in his preface to In Short, brief memoir essays provide readers with the opportunity to experience “the disproportionate power of the small to move, persuade, and change us.”
Writing Flash Memoir: Start Small
Maybe you’ve started writing a book-length memoir but, like the woman at Alice Hoffman’s reading, haven’t completed it. Or perhaps you aspire to write a book-length memoir but don’t know where to start.
Well, in the words of Alice Hoffman, why not “start small.”
Writing flash memoir—starting small—is an excellent way to practice the craft of writing memoir, and to prepare for the long-form demands of a book-length memoir. The brief form will require you to explore your deeper story truth and make sense of your experience (for yourself and for your reader) within a short page span. No space to wander down rabbit holes that take you away from the essential deeper truth!
Trying your hand at flash memoir also situates you to produce some beautiful memoir pieces that may, in fact, deepen your understanding of the subject you want to write about in a longer memoir. This understanding may provide you with invaluable insight—a flash of human experience—that will, ultimately, “move, persuade, and change” your readers.
Today’s Flash Assignment
Begin by first acquainting yourself with the flash memoir form. The online journal Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction offers a treasure trove of flash creative nonfiction pieces that are 750 words or less.
- Poke around and read whichever essays catch your eye.
- Hone in on five essays that move you.
- Reread each of these essays with the following questions in mind:
- What “large sense” does the author make of his or her experience?
- How, exactly, does this piece move me as a reader?
By pinpointing how a piece of flash memoir moves you as a reader, you are in fact practicing the art of reading like a writer and cultivating a writer’s sensibility for how to engage your readers at an emotional level when you return to the page.
Reading short memoir essays in this way—“seeing beneath the surface” of a piece to the larger sense the author is making—will make you a better writer when you try your hand at writing flash memoir and longer memoir.
I’ll offer another Flash Assignment next week. For now, enjoy reading like a writer and seeing beneath the surface of the memoir pieces you read.
And let us know in the comments which Brevity essay especially moved you.
Extra credit: Let us know how it moved you. : )