In my last post, we talked about the distinction between autobiography and memoir. Today, let’s talk about expectations (as well as craft and technique) so that you’ll know what to expect while writing your memoir.
Writing Memoir: How Hard Can it Be?
Writing a memoir isn’t an easy process. We often assume it will be, though. I mean, heck we’ve been writing our entire lives, right? How hard can it really be?
Well, that depends on why you’re writing your story (i.e.: your book’s goals) and who it’s for (i.e.: your book’s audience). If you’re writing for your loved ones, then yes, it will be a much easier process.
But if you want your memoir to reach a wider audience (and maybe even change some small aspect of the world), then you’re going to have to come up with a kick-ass work that can stand on its own, competing against all the other well-written books out there.
And that can be a process.
What Makes a Good Memoir?
Memoir is its own genre, with specific rules that take practice to master. To write a compelling memoir that strangers will want to read, you’ll need to master the proper craft and technique of memoir, including characterization, pacing, structure, setting, dialogue, tone/voice, showing v. telling, conflict development, character development, etc.
Think of your favorite memoirs. Most of them read like novels, right? That’s because memoir and fiction use similar techniques.
Take, for example, Tara Westover’s Educated or Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle. Or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World, Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story or Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air.
These are all kick-ass memoirs built around a central conflict, with memorable characters, appropriate pacing and high stakes. We care about these narrators, and as we traverse their unique challenges alongside them, we exit these books with a deeper understanding of humanity, the world, and/or ourselves.
That’s the power of a well-written memoir.
And it takes work to reach that point. In fact, the easier a book reads, the harder it probably was to write.
Much like the work that goes into crafting a blockbuster TED talk.
You wouldn’t expect to do a TED talk and knock it out of the park on your first try, would you? The reason those talks are so good is because the speakers have put hundreds of hours of preparation into that one, little 15-minute speech. Not to mention the years of research and education that have previously gone into honing their topic.
Write a Memoir
Writing a memoir is a similar process. Nobody knocks it out of the park on the first try. The best memoirs have been rewritten (and edited) again and again. It’s not uncommon to hear an author say that they’ve written 10 drafts of their book.
I’m not telling you this to deter you. Not by any means.
I’m a passionate proponent of memoir and would love to encourage you to write your memoir as long as its the right path for you.
Writing a memoir will change your life, empower you in ways you can’t fathom at the outset. And that, my dear, is magic.
As long as this is path is for you.
And before you make that decision, it’s important that you know what you’re getting yourself into.
How to Write a Memoir Essay
If you’re not sure that you want to write a memoir, start by writing a short, 900 word essay on one specific topic. This can be a great way to experiment with the genre, learning as you go.
For help writing a short essay (as well as getting it published), I recommend Susan Shapiro’s The Byline Bible: Get Published in 5 Weeks. It’s a DIY course bundled into one little book and it will teach you everything you need to know. I recommend it highly.
(If you’ve been working on your memoir for a while and want the satisfaction of finishing something and maybe even getting it published, writing a short essay can be a wonderful exercise to sustain you throughout the memoir-writing process.)
And if you’re still hell-bent on writing that memoir? Well, buckle-up, my dear. It’ll be the ride of a lifetime. I promise you that.
This is part 2 of a multi-part series on how and when to write your memoir. Tune in next week for the next installment.
P.S.: One of my the things I’m working on this summer is reformulating my Memoir Mastery Program into two separate courses for fall. More info coming soon!