I love reading a good memoir. It’s one of my favorite ways to escape reality. I love writing memoir and teaching it too. These days, it seems as if everyone is writing about their personal experience.
Writing Tip for Today: What are readers looking for in
personal stories or memoir?
Answer the Why
With the advent of digital and on-demand publishing, more
people than ever want to write a memoir. We tell our stories and others remark,
“Oh! You should write a book!” So we do. But there are different sorts of
memoir and many reasons for writing one. If you have heard that “You should
write a book!”, maybe your reason is to gift your family and descendants. Write
it up and take it to Create Space, have 50 copies printed and wrap them as
Others write to chronicle an event or era that has passed
away. In doing so, the process of revisiting old memories can be therapeutic
and cathartic. These memoirs can also be produced for relatively small sums on
any self-pub platform.
Yet many memoir writers envision a book that goes far beyond
the Christmas tree or therapy. These writers are certain their story is unique
and bestseller material. They take classes, spend years and lots of money
perfecting a manuscript to shop around. It takes courage and patience and now
and then, one of these manuscripts does find a publisher.
Find the Story
Those writers whose memoirs are traditionally published have
one thing in common: story. Readers crave
a good story, whether it’s fictional or true. This expectation puts a heavy
burden on writers and publishers alike. Writers must be highly skilled, and
publishers must be willing to risk their time and money.
Any story can be intriguing if it’s written well enough. Yet many writers overlook the mechanics of good storytelling in their memoirs. It’s not enough to describe all the tubes, alarms and medical procedures as a loved one slips away from cancer. The mistake comes in not tapping into the deepest emotions of loss. Going deep takes a lot of honesty and courage.
For most writers, attempts to go to the place which will
resonate with readers is more a process than an action. In other words, you
have to peel back the emotions, and keep cracking open your experience until
you arrive at the heart of it. You’re liable to see a bit of ugliness in there,
and your willingness to be brutally honest will count toward connection with
Not about You
The paradox of memoir writing is that although you’re
writing your life, a memoir is not about you. Let that sink in. Your reader is
desperate to see him/herself in the pages you write. Readers are always looking
to be understood, to be recognized, to be validated.
If you are able to locate the universal truth or heart center of your story, the writing has a much better chance of hitting readers with a gut punch they cannot ignore. Some in the industry roll their eyes when writers submit another story about cancer.
Yet there are many wonderful memoirs out there about cancer. Blackbird by Jennifer Lauck and Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius are two examples. Both authors wisely reach for the heart center, the place where we all feel wounded and experience painful loss—even if we’ve never known anyone who died of cancer.
I encourage all my students to write about their lives in
terms of these universal truths. Not only will they learn to dive deep in both
fiction and nonfiction, they may even write the next bestseller about cancer.
And if the book is destined as a gift for family or for catharsis, at least it
will a better story to stir our emotions. Write deep—your writing will be much