What’s In A Memoir?

…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.

Article courtesy of Shannon St. Hillaire.

Announcing: David Michael Slater

Slater - Dictionaries Out of Order - Photo

Shannon & Elm is pleased to announce the recent signing of David Michael Slater, and his short story collection Dictionaries Out of Order.

The title Dictionaries Out of Order stems from a Jean Cocteau quote which states, “The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order.” This is much the case for Slater’s book: a collection of stories, all discrete,  but which all draw together to speak to the theme of the written word, and what the written word means to those who love it as we do.

From Russia to Oregon, from the 1700s to the future, a web of words weaves writers and readers together in a bond they can’t quite escape.

David Michael Slater is an acclaimed author of fiction for all ages. His work includes the hilarious comic drama for adults, Fun & Games, which the New York Journal of Books raves “works brilliantly”; the teen fantasy series Sacred Books, which is being developed for film; and the picture books Cheese Louise!, Ned Loses His Head, and The Bored Book. He teaches in Reno, Nevada, where he lives with his wife and son.

What else should we know about Mr. Slater, writer of writers?

What do you have the most fun with during the creative process?

Two times: 1) When arriving somewhere wonderful in a plot that I could never have predicted yet that feels utterly inevitable, and 2) When working on “alternate history” and I find real history cooperating with my twisted desires.

What comes first, the chicken or the alien egg?

Whichever the waiter in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe serves first.

What is a profound memory from this title’s writing process?

The first piece in this collection was my first published work as an author. I remember deciding to use my middle name on it because it made me feel more “authorial.” Been stuck using it ever since.


You can read the rest of Slater’s interview on his author page…then go check out some out some of our other awesome authors!

Afterwards, mark your calendar for Dictionaries Out of Order, coming this June from Shannon & Elm.

Announcing: Shane Norwood

Author Pic, -c- Ximena Sorondo Norwood

Shannon & Elm is pleased to announce the signing of Shane Norwood.

“A line in Ulysses reads ‘Only the sacred pint can unbind the tongue of Dedalus.’” Shane Norwood “firmly believes this, just as he believes that it would be foolish in the extreme to argue with James Joyce. For this reason he has dedicated himself to the diligent consumption of copious amounts of booze before sitting down to write, in an effort to emulate the great ones. How successful this experiment turns out to be remains to be seen, but in the meantime it can be safely said that Shane Norwood seriously enjoys his writing.”

Mr. Norwood is a prolific writer, with five books already planned in his new fiction series The Big Bamboo. He has written a magical realism short story (Looking for Mowgli) which was published last month by Max Avalon, and has a Western and an autobiography in the works.

Machine Gun Jelly, the first book in the Big Bamboo series, is likely what would have been borne had Austin Powers and Guy Ritchie had a threesome with Stephanie Plum. From the dark side of Vegas to the mystery of Vietnam, from the Cajun bayou to the Australian outback, Machine Gun Jelly takes readers to places they never thought they’d go.  At once laugh-out-loud funny and deeply poignant, it is filled with well-wrought dialogue and characters you’d want to have a beer with (well… most of them).

Some get what they want. Others get what they deserve. But nobody gets what they expected.

To introduce the author in his own words: “Shane is a devoted family man who keeps food on the tables by walking around in circles in Chile masquerading as a casino manager, and occasionally pretending to be Robert Mitchum.  Shane was born in a steel town in the north of England in 1955. Shane has five children. He is engaged in a breeding competition with his eldest daughter who is currently winning six to five. Although his soul knows it is English because of the larceny that lurks therein, the rest of him is no longer sure. One daughter is American, one is from Kenya, one son is from South Africa, two sons are from Chile, his wife is from Argentina, his horse is an Arab and his dog is Italian. At one time Shane was a fisherman in Hawaii. In his heart he still is.”

What else should we know about this author we will all come to read and love?

How do you write?

I don’t set out to compose the books, the books kind of write themselves. It is as if they are already there waiting to be set down on paper, and I am just a scribe who writes the words.

Who inspires you? 

In terms of writing, anyone who has ever written a book. Even if it was the worst book ever written. Even if it was the most egregious clichéd irredeemable crock of unmitigated shite from start to finish the fact is that the person did it. That they had the will to persevere and to set down the words that they thought were right. For every Vladimir Nabokov there is some poor schmo sitting in a dingy room wrestling with a clapped out typewriter sitting next to a wastepaper basket full of crumpled pieces of paper, struggling to produce his masterpiece that no one will ever read, and good for him. And somewhere else, in some draw somewhere, there is a manuscript containing words of such profound beauty as to stand with anything that was ever written, and for whatever reason it will remain forever in darkness like some flower that never grows, and somebody’s heart may be broken because of it, and good for them too.

What is a cherished memory from your life you’d like to share?

All my memories are cherished, even the bad ones. They are the story of our days that make us who we are. I remember getting a mail from Travis telling me he’d like to sign my work, and I’m going to cherish the shit out of that one let me tell you.

You can read the rest of Mr. Norwood’s interview in the Authors section of this website. When you’ve finished, you can discover some of the other wonderful authors Shannon & Elm has signed.

Keep an eye out for the official cover release, featuring art and design by the talented Tony Kuoch… then make sure to mark your calendar for Machine Gun Jelly, coming this April.