…I have spent a good deal of time asking myself this question. I believe that anyone’s life could be a memoir; so when should someone write a memoir?
One of my favorite recent reads in (sort of) this genre is A Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. It is a hybrid of a memoir and a psychological how to: a guide to surviving life. A combination of personal experience and anecdotes highlight his psychological analysis of how to live a fulfilled life even in the direst of circumstances. His unique qualifications and life events make him the only one who could have written this book, which had sold more than 10 million copies at the time of Frankl’s death in 1997. That’s the dream, for a memoirist, anyway.
While I was growing up, I devoured memoirs, but primarily ones written by survivors on the Vietnam War, the killing fields of Cambodia, and, of course, the Holocaust. Very rarely did I encounter an American memoir. Naturally, my reading list was a reflection of my personal preferences as an upstart young kid; I wanted the most dramatic life stories possible and I wanted to learn about places I would likely never go. But a memoir can be so much more than a statement of the adventures and tragedies of one’s life.
So, what is in a memoir? What can American and other “first world” memoirists contribute to this genre?
For me, a memoir is worth reading when wisdom gained from someone else’s life experiences is shared. How has your unique set of life experiences made you you? What have you figured out about life that no one else seems to notice? What do you wish you had known earlier in life, before those tumultuous events that made you want to go through the cathartic process of writing and sharing in the first place? These precious little bits of wisdom are the best assets you have to offer the reader. They are the reason people read. And they are the reason people read memoirs. People choose to read a memoir about someone battling brain cancer for an entirely different reason than they would read 10 Steps to Kicking Cancer Where it Counts, or 17 Questions to Ask WebMd. A memoir is a conversation shared over a cup of tea on a rainy day. It is a deep relationship formed through the magic of the written word.
Here are the pitfalls to avoid:
Beware of whining. Yes, your life is hard, but once you write it all down in book form and ask others to read it, your life becomes more important than that. Readers get enough teen angst and tragedy in their own lives. Find the deeper significance.
I hate clichés. Any reader who reads with any degree of an analytical eye hates them as well. Clichés are closely related the aforementioned whining, revealing a laziness of thought and lack of personal perspective. Never confess to your reader that you’ve never felt this way before or that you bear the weight of the world upon your shoulders. Or that you wish you could sink into the ground and disappear. All this may be true, but tell us why it’s true. It’s not like we’re following you on Twitter. Or Facebook, which it turns out you can do now.
Humor is essential. No one wants to read a book that will make them cry and only cry. It is a matter of perspective. Those who find a way to laugh in the face of sadness, they are the ones who conquer it. Memoirs should show us the way to laughter. You don’t have to be David Sedaris, but at least allow your readers the will to go on living after reading your memoir.
Don’t elevate yourself to martyr/saint status. Don’t lower yourself to the dregs of society. Admit your well-intentioned (or not so well-intentioned) mistakes. Don’t dwell on them. Your number one credential for writing a memoir is that you are human. It’s something you have in common with your readers.
Go ahead and describe that setting. Add your perspective to the time and place. Inject how you were feeling at the time (and how you currently feel about how you were feeling at the time) into your surroundings. I guarantee they impacted you, even if it was subconscious at the time. Used effectively, these descriptions invite the reader into a dramatization of your experience. Sure, you don’t remember exactly what color the wallpaper was, but you felt puny while you were there. Say it’s puce. Nobody wants to be in a puce-colored room and we can all agree on that. Your reader has officially been included in your experience.
Not everybody who writes a memoir is a writer at heart. Some have just the one book inside of them, bursting to get out. If you are one such person, be extra careful. Your life may be incredible and worth reading about, but that does not excuse you from the basics. Your work must still be well-written and proofread. There is nothing wrong with getting help on these things, but there is something wrong with lacking them. Those memoirs I read as a child where “written” by people who had spent the majority of their lives in non-English speaking countries. But they got their memoirs out there somehow, and those books were major factors in shaping the person I am today.
Many others can and have written more comprehensive guides to writing memoirs. I will leave them to it. I simply want to share aspects of memoirs that raise the standard to one that rivals literary fiction. These steps enhance a memoir, separating an okay piece to one that sticks with the reader for years to come.