The Truth About Memoir

Once a year I teach a writing class for memoirists. Inevitably two things happen. At least one published memoirist crashes and burns, usually over the “facts” of the story. And in class, we end up discussing how much truthiness (thank you Stephen Colbert) is imperative in a memoir.
Writing Tip for Today: Every time I see agent listings that want to see memoir, I cringe. Of all the long forms, memoir may be the toughest for John Q. Writer to break into. Here are some things every memoirist should keep in mind:

  • Tell a Great Story. Your life has been in-teresting, as Bugs Bunny said to the Monster. But in order to sell a memoir, you’ll need to tell the best story that agent or editor has heard lately. Work on your storytelling skills by borrowing liberally from fiction techniques of scene, dialogue and narrative. Celebrities have an unfair advantage in this category, but get over it–and tell a great story.
  • Leave Out the Boring Stuff. Again, it’s your life and thus a lot of it seems interesting. But readers rarely care about how you got from A to B, unless it’s critical to the overall story’s theme and scope.
  • But I Must Tell the Truth! Your biggest worry is NOT whether or not Aunt Mabel really said a line you wrote. No. Worry about telling a great story. Then wrestle with those details.
  • The Fine Line of Truth. That said, you can probably fabricate details that may not have happened exactly the way you remember. But NEVER make stuff up that alters the spirit or intent of the book. If you say you were at Woodstock, then you’d better have really gone to Woodstock.
  • Write It Like Fiction, Pitch It Like Nonfiction. I recently phoned a large New York agency with the question: How would you prefer to receive a memoir submission? As a fiction or nonfiction proposal? The agency rep said the pitch should be for a nonfiction book. That means you write an Overview, not a Synopsis. I don’t know if other agents prefer a different treatment, but since memoir IS nonfiction, I’d say treat a proposal that way too. 

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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