Crafting a Tight, Compelling Memoir from Page One
A memoir is defined as “a narrative composed from personal experience” and comes from the French word mémoire, which means memory.
In other words, a memoir is a nonfiction work recounting a specific experience or period of time in the writer’s life. Much like discussing a troubling memory with a therapist, some of the best memoirs synthesize past experiences and present them as an insightful whole for the present-day writer and her readers.
How does memoir differ from autobiography?
While autobiography recounts a person’s life story (the word comes from Latinate roots for self – auto – and life-writing – biography), memoir focuses on a specific point in time. Not an entire life story, just the emotions, places, people, and events leading up to and surrounding one part of it.
In fact, when the word memoir is used to refer to an autobiography, it is written in the plural: “Kanye West’s memoirs.” While this plural form might sound hoity-toity, it is because an autobiography comprises the entire range of a person’s experiences (or memoirs) throughout their life.
This contrast between the broad strokes of an autobiography and the deep dive of a memoir is something that writers new to creative nonfiction struggle with. That said, I feel that it is an important difference to master in order to write a successful memoir.
Compelling experience + Tight storytelling = Successful memoir
Readers purchase memoirs for the same reason we watch reality TV: to sample another person’s experience without taking on that person’s risks.
For instance, Bill Clegg’s Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man chronicles the crazy highs and devastating lows of his cocaine addiction. The book’s tight pacing and no-frills adherence to its subject matter allowed me to understand and relate to Clegg’s downward spiral. I was on top of the world with him when the feelings of invincibility and euphoria took hold, and I was on the gritty bathroom floor with him when powder changed to crack pipes and he hallucinated SWAT extraction teams repelling down the side of his hotel.
That shared experience is the power of a successful memoir.
As I’ve said, memoirists succeed in producing a compelling narrative by keeping their storytelling tight. By focusing only on experiences that have a direct or indirect impact on the memoir, the author avoids giving her reader unnecessary background information or anecdotes that can detract from the emotional and intellectual currency of the main storyline.
A direct impact is one that exists as part of the cause-and-effect chain that makes something in the memoir happen, like a house party leading to a DUI. An indirect impact exists in relation to the setting or mood of the narrative, like remembering you went to a job interview on 9/11.
For example, when my client Carol Park wrote Memoir of a Cashier, which details her experience working at her family’s Compton gas station during the L.A. Riots, she may have been tempted to write about other pivotal experiences from her teen years, such as her school friends, a fondly remembered vacation, her first date. However, unless these experiences had a direct or indirect impact on the thesis of her memoir, then they would have no business being in her memoir.
Making Use of Narrative Structure
Keep in mind that a memoir is first and foremost a narrative.
While you can’t make up facts for a memoir – well, you could, but then you’d have to answer to Oprah – you are encouraged to mold your experience into a narrative structure, much like a novelist or short story writer would. This means that you can give dramatic emphasis to important moments and even play with chronological or narrative structure.
Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape is one such memoir, in that his remembrance of his late wife is structured around the mix tapes they shared with one another.
Staying on Message
Whether you are preparing to write a memoir or have already finished one, spend some time thinking about what you want your work to convey above all else. Condense this into a brief mission statement and keep it on a Post-It near your computer.
Whenever you’re tempted to go off the beaten path of the specific narrative, this note will remind you to ask: Does this directly or indirectly impact my story? If not, set it aside for its own project, and work on making your memoir as tight and compelling as it can be.
I hope this how-to guide has been helpful and informative. Whether you’re new to the genre or you have a manuscript in need of professional editing, feel free to contact me to discuss how we can make your memoir even better.
In the meantime, I will leave you with these suggestions for further reading. Enjoy!
- Love is a Mix Tape, Rob Sheffield. Crown Publishing Group, 2007.
- Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, Bill Clegg. Little, Brown, 2010.
- The Tender Bar, JR Moehringer. Hachette Books, 2005.
- Unbearable Lightness, Portia de Rossi. Atria Books, 2010.