This blog post is from our sponsor, Journey Sixty6. By Dave Goetz, cofounder of JourneySixty6.
One of my all-time favorite memoirs is Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had.
Its author, Rick Bass, a short-story writer and novelist, writes a heart-warming dog story. The runt of litter, a German shorthair pup dubbed “Colter,” becomes a loyal canine companion who wiggles himself into the souls of Bass and his family. I wept at the end of the memoir.
Well-written memoirs are a joy to read. Memoirists write like novelists. They create characters that their readers love or hate. Memoirists are great storytellers.
If you plan to write a memoir, or currently feel stuck in the writing process, here are seven principles to help you write a best-selling memoir!
- A memoir is not an autobiography.
The goal of your memoir is not to produce an all-encompassing read of your life. A memoir is not an autobiography. A memoir is a story of only a part or a key theme of your life. Some writers have written multiple memoirs, each unique in its own way. Plus, most of us are not celebrities, so our readers simply don’t care about the ordinary history of our lives.
A memoir is not a junk drawer of everything that has happened to you. You open a junk drawer, and everything spills out—and your gut response is to shut the drawer. It’s overwhelming. Don’t overwhelm your reader with the stories that don’t matter.
- Dig into the “why” of your memoir.
A good exercise before you start your memoir is to slow down and ask, “Why do I want to write a memoir?” This is no simple activity. A few of you may be able to burp out the “why” instantly. Others may need to take some time to sort it out. We recently interviewed Donna Freitas, a novelist and nonfiction writer, who said that until you know the why of your book, you may struggle to structure it.
Your “why” might be as simple as passing along your family legacy to the next generation. Or maybe it’s to help and inspire people to overcome a problem you overcame. With no “why,” there may be no destination for your story. A clear “why” gives you energy and focus.
- A memoir with an overly heroic narrator is cringeworthy.
You are the narrator of and the main character in your memoir. If you make yourself out to always be in the right, always the do-gooder, or the one who can do no wrong, your only readers will be your partner and your mum. If you are always heroic, you will become a one-dimensional, uninteresting (potentially unlikeable!) character in your memoir. Your memoir should show you to be human, not perfect.
- A memoir with an overly victimized narrator is also cringeworthy.
This is a tricky statement to make, because victims are truly victims – and have had horrific things done to them. If your memoir is about some form of abuse or horrible tragedy at the hands of another person or persons, your challenge is this: how to write with hope while not diminishing the pain or suffering that you’ve experienced. It’s not easy. You can’t wrap up your memoir with a pretty bow. Where everyone lived happily ever after. But you also can’t write a story in which you have no agency, where you stay a victim. The arc of your story must have some satisfying end for the reader.
- You don’t have to start your memoir at the very beginning.
There’s a phrase that is often used in creative writing: in medias res. It’s a Latin phrase that means “in the midst of things.” One of the most important decisions in writing your memoir is how to start it. Often, first-time memoirists instinctively write their story chronologically. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But there may be a better way: start your memoir at its most gripping or tension-filled moment.
For example, if you are writing a memoir about your journey across the world in a hot-air balloon, you might want to consider starting the memoir when you lost altitude in the midst of a storm and thought you were going to crash in the middle of Montana. In medias res is how Jon Krakauer starts Into Thin Air. He begins with his summit of Everest and ends the first paragraph with this gripping sentence: “Nobody suspected that by the end of that long day, every minute would matter.” The suspense immediately hooks the reader.
- Eliminate long stretches of “telling” or monologue.
Every introductory writing class starts with this aphorism: you must show, not tell. To tell is to write, “He was angry.” To show is to write, “He gave a slight cough and then raised his head.” The idea is that you need to “show anger” not tell us that he was angry. We recommend that you outline your book by “scenes” or situations in which there is conflict or movement in the story.
Each scene should have a setting and dialogue to show the reader what is happening—and draw her into the moment. The more you merely tell us your story, the less likely we’re going to stay with your memoir to the end.
- Be vulnerable.
This may seem patently obvious, but the principle needs to be re-enforced. Most memoirs have a reflective quality to them. That is, the author writes the story of what happened to him or her – but also gives commentary on what happened. Lisa Sharkey, who is a creative director at HarperCollins Publishers, recently wrote, “Vulnerability is a superpower.… Without going deep, authors can’t write successful memoirs that touch people at their cores.”
To be vulnerable means to describe how scared you felt. It’s writing about your deepest fears at your lowest points. To be vulnerable means to expose something that might feel risky or shameful. There may be times to rein in your vulnerability, but most new writers need to be encouraged to take greater risks.
By Dave Goetz, cofounder of JourneySixty6