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This transcript has been edited for clarity.
I think that memoirists in particular are some of the bravest of the writers because of the very personal nature of the content. You’re mining your personal business and you are sharing it with the rest of the world, and that takes courage. So, Bravo! I assume that I’m talking to people who are interested in being published. So, I’ll speak on that level. Although obviously, the tips that I’ll give today are good for those who are just writing on a more personal level, maybe just for the family or posterity.
So, what I’m going to talk about are tips, suggestions – not necessarily hard rules. Maybe some are rule-adjacent. Now and then it’ll be like, “Ugh, God, don’t do that, whatever you do!” But as you work in a genre and learn some classic rules, you’ll start to get more confident and see where you can twist and shift and break them.
But I’m going to talk about some things that I’ve heard publishers are looking for. And that I’ve actually seen. I’ve spoken to agents, publishers, people with literary agencies, and there are certain things that they just don’t want to see in memoir. Most of all, they’re looking for a good story.
You know, long before I was editing memoirs, I was reading memoirs, not necessarily written by people I’d heard of. So what leads us to read the memoir of someone we’ve never heard of, we’ve never met? It’s a really good story well told, and that could come from any one of us. So I say, get out there and learn your craft. Learn to be a good writer; learn to be a good storyteller and you can bring the stories from your personal life that will be interesting to other people.
So let’s start with the first point on the list.
1. What is a memoir NOT?
Memoir is not--although it’s often confused with--autobiography. In the eyes of publishers, unless you’re Mick Jagger or Martin Scorsese or the Queen Mum, your life probably doesn’t warrant a full-length autobiography, which tends to span your earliest years till the present.
Think of an autobiography as the story of a life, while a memoir is one of many possible stories within a life. So while most of us aren’t suited for autobiography, there’s a memoir in every house - and probably many memoirs in every house.
Memoir is not a box of your journals, tipped into a word document and spilled onto the page, and handed to the audience because that’s not storytelling (unless you’re one of the rare few who have written in story form in your journal). That’s not what memoir is. We don’t want to just read a bunch of disconnected tales and thoughts and experiences.
A memoir is also not an unlinked collection of essays. Unfortunately, those don’t tend to sell unless you’re David Sedaris or Steve Martin, or Chris Rock. Side note: this broke my heart some years ago when I wanted to write a collection of essays about my early years in California.
Memoir is not therapy. While you’ll probably work through things in the course of writing your memoir, we don’t really want to hear the ugly, deeply emotional, pained, gutted, experiences that you’re going through if you haven’t made it past a traumatic situation.
So if you’re going through a divorce — if you’ve really been torn apart by a breakup — that really doesn’t belong in your memoir. We’re better off reading this after you’ve worked through it.
Mary Karr says that the act of writing a memoir is going to gut you and exhaust you. She talks about, I think, at the end of LIT when she put the last period on the last page, she said she felt the fever coming up her neck. She spiked at 104 degrees and got pneumonia. And a lot of her colleagues and friends have had similar situations, but that was in the excavation and storytelling. It wasn’t because she was in the heart of a divorce or some family trauma at the time.
I like to paraphrase one of the great writers on the show Succession who said, “Why don’t you just go ahead and outsource that to your therapist?” Wait until you’re over that trauma and looking at it less emotionally and more objectively, and then consider writing about something like that.
More than once in this talk I’m going to refer to a couple people who I think will make great resources for you if you’re not familiar with them already. One of them is Marion Roach (also known as Marion Roach Smith). She is, I think, a former New York Times contributor - if not currently and she’s a blogger. She shares a lot of terrific wisdom -- a lot of essays and blogs including guest blogs. She says: “Memoir is about something you know after something you’ve been through.”
So that’s an interesting way to look at it, I think. It’s about where you got to after that journey, and you’re sharing that with us.
2. What is the scope of your memoir?
Reedsy is also a great resource for writers. They said that memoir is “a narrative written from the author’s perspective about a particular facet of their own life.” So you get the idea. It doesn’t have to be massively spanning. I can be much more focused.
So to help frame and narrow the scope of your memoir and define the story in it, you could consider thinking like a fiction writer. Maybe you could craft a sentence that describes your story arc. And you can put that on a post-it note and stick that on the top of your computer screen and keep an eye on it. And, and you could do the same with a theme, which we’ll talk about shortly.
Crystallize your story arc
So, a few I stole and/or adapted from the internet of these possible sentences that might describe the overall idea of your memoir:
Orphaned kid saves the family farm during the depression.
Cross-dressing teen survives high school in the fifties.
Single mother puts herself through med school while raising three kids in the deep south.
A 55-year-old man says, “to hell with the pension,” and abandons his finance career to become a gardener.
So if you write that sentence (and then the theme) on a post-it and stick it on that computer screen, you keep it right there. You’re not necessarily going to go off in directions that aren’t serving the story that you really want to tell.
Treat your memoir as one of many potential books
I find that a lot of the writers I meet feel that they have one book in them: “This is the only one I’m going to do. And I’m putting everything in it. It’s getting all my greatest hits.” To avoid that happening, you can narrow your focus early, and then all those other great stories from your life and all those brilliant things you think as you’re going for walks, you can put those in a folder and save those for another piece, but you want to stay focused on the one you’re working on now.
I used to suggest something like this when I worked with a lot of high school and college students on their essays -- we would try to get the thesis statement early. We’d put that right in front of them so that when they found themselves writing off in other directions, they’d go back to the thesis to remind themselves of the promise of this essay.
How much time of your life should your memoir cover?
That, of course, depends on the story you want us to hear. And the theme that supports that.
- Maybe it starts when you graduate high school, and it wraps up the day you graduate college.
- Maybe it starts on your wedding day and ends up 12 years later, the day you sign divorce papers.
- Maybe it covers the 12 weeks between when you decided to try out for the first play ever and ends on opening night when you’re the lead.
- Maybe it’s only three days. Maybe you were held hostage for three days, and that’s the only time you want to cover in this memoir.
So, once you decide the story you want to tell, it’s going to more naturally tell you how long — which months and years go into this manuscript.
So, what can help you define that if you’re really not sure is you can talk to the people who know you, the people who lived through that with you, and ask them which aspects of that time jump out to them. Which stories are most poignant? You just want to be careful not to make it a data dump.
You don’t want to throw everything into it and try to tell your every story. You might have several memoirs to write. So, my recommendation is always to choose the one that’s really telling you it wants to be told and start there, and keep the other information out of it, maybe for a later book.
3. What is this story really about?
Theme. I think. . . I like to use an example of the movie Rocky when I explain this. If you ask a lot of people what Rocky is about, they will tell you it’s about a fighter. He’s washed up, he’s collecting debts for a local gangster, then he falls in love with Adrian. He gets a shot at the title fight. He trains like a beast.
They would tell you the plot. They would tell you what can be seen on the screen. But in story development, we treat the word “about'' differently. It’s not plot; it’s theme. It’s what’s really going on underneath what we can see. Like what’s really going on with Rocky?
What is Rocky all about?
Rocky is about determination, self-respect, wanting respect on the outside. It’s about second chances: this is the heart of Rocky. This is what makes it such a beloved film. It addresses themes that resonate so much with people. We root for him because we understand what’s really at the heart of what he wants and needs.
Mary Karr says about her third memoir, LIT, that it’s about “leaving home to find home.” She also says it’s about embracing a mother to let go of a mother to become a mother. She let that guide the writing of that memoir.
What is your plot really telling you?
Going back to some of the plots that I mentioned earlier, we could look at the theme that we might build into that — or find in that.
If it’s the story of when you left high school, and it ends when you left college, maybe this memoir is really trying to take a look at what it took to graduate Summa Cum Laude. Maybe that’s about pushing yourself for the first time and seeing what your best effort looks like. And what’s that about? That’s about self-respect. That’s about pride.
The one about the cross-dressing teenager trying to survive the 1950s in the United States in a high school. Maybe the underlying “about” of that story is that it’s about learning to like who you see in the mirror. Maybe it’s also about helping enlighten those who act like jerks out of their own discomfort. Look for those deeper, more meaningful themes, and that can help you figure out what goes in this memoir because you want the stories to feed the theme you’ve chosen.
Let’s go back to the one about the 55-year-old who quits his career and becomes a gardener. That, to me, sounds like a story about taking a risk, going after something you really want. And what’s that about? That’s about courage and staying power and determination and resisting other people’s fear because when you want to make a big change, when you want to do something risky, often what you hear about is what scares other people about your idea. And to me, that’s an interesting idea.
And the one that starts on your wedding day and ends when you’re getting a divorce – what’s that story really about? Of course, it depends on who’s writing it, but I’m throwing out possibilities here -- maybe that’s about living for yourself, not worrying about other people’s expectations. Maybe it’s about standing on your own for the first time in your 41 years. Maybe it’s about independence. These are themes that could do a beautiful job of guiding memoirs.
The Memoir Project Algorithm
Other possible memoir themes: realizing that your parents did their best and forgiving them for it. Navigating romantic love without letting it take over your life. Coming of age, very common metaphor theme. What’s within that? Maturity, taking responsibility, opening your eyes. You could write about accepting a change that you didn’t really want to and learning that you actually like it quite a bit.
It could be an awakening, realizing that you’re the one who’s been discriminating against other people. It could be about the extraordinary power of hope. It could be about the power of gratitude. It could be about the power of letting go of blame. These are themes that could drive a memoir.
Back to Marion Roach. She helps people figure out their story by using a little template that she calls the Memoir Project Algorithm. She says “It’s about X as illustrated by Y, to be told in a Z.” So we’re going to get rid of the Z part because she’s talking about a blog, magazine article, or book. We’re talking about a book — a memoir.
Here’s an example of her putting content into her algorithm: It’s about how closure is a myth as illustrated by making unsteady decisions to get back in touch with every old boyfriend, and the curious results of that escapade. That sounds a little like High Fidelity to me, which is a terrific story. So that would be her post-it at the top of her screen.
Here’s another X and Y. It’s about how having somewhat bumbling parents can create a confident, independent young adult, as illustrated by a series of solid decisions. So. . . you might want to try that if you’re trying to define your “about,” your theme. Try that. So, “I’m telling the story of X as told through Ys.”
Tips to figuring out your memoir’s theme
And back to Reedsy with more of their helpful tips. They say, to help you figure out your memoir's theme, tell someone your story, someone who already knows what’s going on in this manuscript and ask them which parts arouse their curiosity.
See which questions they ask. What jumps up to them? Think about how you were changed by the experiences that you are talking about in this memoir. What did you learn between the starting point and the endpoint of these years or months that you’re going to show us in the memoir? What came out of it for you? We want to hear about that.
Another suggestion they offer is to ask yourself, “Why am I writing this book?”’ That’s a good one because memoir is not revenge. This is not a tool to stick it to somebody else and make yourself look like a hero. That usually doesn’t fly.
So ask yourself, “Why am I writing this? What do I want to say?” Wander around and daydream about those questions for a little bit. You might also write the major events of your life and see if there’s some connection between them. In doing that, you might find the natural beats of your story. You could really take some time and do this exercise, make an outline, take some notes.
If you just know that you want to read a memoir and you have no idea which area of your life you want to cover, you might write some of the significant events, the places you moved to, who you loved, how you failed, when you got your heart broken; when you succeeded. See which ones seem to form a theme and see if you see a pattern in your choices.
Memoir as an argument
So again, from Marion Roach, she says that all nonfiction, including memoir, is an argument. Which I find interesting. This is another way that you might be able to get to a theme.
So she says (and to me, it sounds like another essay thesis) “Life is better if you garden.” And if that’s the theme of your memoir, then that's a really good guiding premise. Because if that’s the idea, you’re not really going to stray too far from that without catching yourself doing so.
Another argument is “You’ll feel happier and more adult the day you stop blaming your parents.” If you know that that’s your argument, that’s going to be a nice, tight guide to keep you from going off the rails into other directions.
Another argument is “You’ll be more popular if you focus on other people. I like that idea.”
Again, when you get the time, go check out some of what Marion Roach (sometimes Marion Roach Smith she’s called) is doing. And she’s a great teacher. So, I think you’ll get a lot out of it — no matter what level of writer you are. If you’re a beginner or if you’re advanced.
4. Writing to entertain
I don’t have too much to say about this, except that I just really wanted to remind people that you are writing for people who don’t know you. They don’t love you. They don’t care if your book sells. They got their hands on the book somehow, they might’ve paid for it, and for that reason, they want to be entertained. They want a good story.
Keeping the reader in mind
So, you always have to keep the reader in mind, which sounds really quite obvious, but I read manuscripts where I think the writer kind of forgot about the reader. They just go writing, writing, writing, writing about things that are not particularly interesting to someone else. And sometimes that means you just went on too long about something or you’re including elements that just don’t make for good storytelling.
So remember, the reader isn’t overtly saying this, but they’re thinking, “What’s in this for me?” I know people who will read a book all the way through, even if it’s boring them senseless. I don’t understand this at all. I have no patience. I think that the author owes you, you owe the author nothing. And when you are the author, you owe the reader. You must remember the audience.
Finding your voice
You can entertain your readers by making sure you stay true to your natural voice. Don’t try to write like you’re someone else. Don’t try to write academically. If you’re writing a memoir, we want to hear you talk. And some people will ask, “How do I know what my voice is?”
Well, first of all, let’s hear your opinions. Say what you think. Let’s hear your personality, your idioms, your phrasing. For some people, it’s not so natural when they’re actually typing, right? Then when they speak to you, you’re hearing their voice. So I say, well, try the exercise of literally recording yourself as you tell a friend a story from your past, or you can just pretend you’re telling it to a friend and see how that sounds. See what kind of phrasing you use. You can also journal to practice hearing your voice because journaling is generally written for you. So you’re not usually trying to put anything on or twist your sound or become someone else.
So take a look at the way you journal, the way you communicate through journaling, and that might help you get to your natural voice.
When you’re entertaining in your writing, and memoir in particular, don’t be afraid to be funny if you’re funny. But if you’re not a comedian, take it easy on the jokes. Actually, even if you are a comedian, I would take it easy on the jokes. It’s not sitcom. You don’t have to hit those beats and make me laugh every eight seconds. But, humor is terrific. And people love a good laugh. So if it’s part of the spirit of what you’re writing and you are capable of writing with humor, please, please do.
Writing captivating scenes
You will entertain when you revise to cut the fat because you don’t want clutter. If you can say it in eight words, don’t use twelve words. That’s a good revision exercise. So, don’t include details that aren’t relevant to the scene, to the story that you’re trying to tell. Even if they happened, that doesn’t mean they belong in this sentence or in this scene.
And most of all, you’ve all heard this a hundred times, the idea of “show, don’t tell.” I think it should be revised to say “Show more than you’re showing.” There’s certainly reason to tell, and I’ll talk about that a little bit in a minute. Don’t stop telling, but I think most people need help learning to do more showing.
You want to make, on the page, this experience as vivid for the reader as it was when you experienced it, and that’s done with visible writing. So, show the story. I love dialogue. I want to feel like I’m watching a movie when I read. When we’re children, the books that we read come with pictures, and then that day ends and the pictures go away. And as writers, that responsibility is now on us to put the pictures in the minds of the readers. And that’s done with showing actually what happens on the page.
So keep practicing this — even if you’re pretty good at it. I really liked the idea of visiting a lot of blog posts and webinars and podcasts. I learn from these all the time. Keep practicing, do exercises to show you how to show.
I also liked the idea of doing a revision pass — a very targeted one. Now, when I’m hired to edit, I’m usually looking for everything in one pass; we’ve got a clock running, and there’s money involved, and I want to catch all of it.
When you’re working on revising your own work, you’re hopefully not rushed. You could do a revision pass where you just look for everything. But consider doing a pass just to look for showing, to see if you’re writing in visible scenes. Don’t worry about commas, don’t worry about grammar, don’t worry about whether or not you ended a chapter well and made me want to move to the next chapter. Just focus on scenes and whether or not you are helping us to see them.
You might want to go through later and do a comma pass, even though you’ll bring a proofreader in for that. Thank you, God, for giving us proofreaders. They will always be invited in at the end. Not to worry - even if you are a grammar expert yourself, even if you have a great editor. . . you always bring a proofreader in at the end because otherwise, I find a lot of people don’t know what to do with commas and that’s rightly so; some comma rules are fixed, some are “If you like it, do it that way.”
I used to joke that my students would do what I call “the comma shaker.” They look at the essay and go, “Oh, I know this needs commas. Let me just put some in there and then hopefully they’ll land in the right place.” So, a proofreader will worry about that even if you do want to do your own revision passes. I really like the idea of doing a pass just to look for one thing at a time, and showing is so important that that is a good reason to do a pass.
5. Balancing immediate scenes with reflection
So my last big point is a biggie and it is about balancing these visible scenes I just described with something that’s called reflection, and then with something that’s called takeaway. So when I talk about reflection and takeaway, I’m going to borrow from the playbook of Brooke Warner. She and her partner in memoir things, Linda Joy Myers, do a lot of webinars and blog posts and books. Terrific, terrific resources. They really know what they’re talking about when it comes to memoir. And Brooke also brings the experience of someone in publishing. She’s a publisher.
Using reflection in your memoir
So what I want to do is explain what reflection and takeaway are, and then show you an example of how you might do it. You know about visible scenes. That’s taking us back in time and showing us you on the playground or you asking someone out or you at your first job. You’re putting us in that scene from the point of view of you back then.
Then, what memoir wants is reflection. And that’s where — now and then — not all the time — it doesn’t have to follow every scene — where you, as the current-day adult, look back on that visible scene that you just gave us.
And you tell us what you know now, how you see it now. And it’s an internal moment that you share with us about what something means to you now that you can see it from this new vantage point. Then comes the more complex, takeaway. It’s very interesting and it’s definitely worth researching to get good at it.
And I’ll explain takeaways in a second. I wanted to give you an example of these three together. So here is a little visible scene that I’m then going to follow with a possible reflection based on that scene. So, all right, here, it goes:
The day after my 12th birthday, I stood in the middle of one of my parents’ glorious cocktail parties. The men in trim, dark suits, looking like they’d just followed Frank Sinatra into a casino, the women with mile-high hair, blue eyeshadow, and shiny, white go-go boots. Cigarettes dangled from fingers and smoke swirled up in wisps to form a cloud layer at the ceiling. Ice clinked in crystal whiskey glasses, and martinis glinted and gleamed as candlelight reflected in the clear liquid.
My father gestured for me to come out of my partial hiding spot near the doorway to the kitchen. I felt a rush at being summoned in the midst of all that grown-up glamour. I tipped my head back tall and strutted over to him, expecting him to ask me to fetch him a lighter, or God, even Wow, would he ask me to refill his drink right there in front of all those glamour people? But he leaned over and said — loud enough for others to hear — I just knew it, “Sweetheart, don’t gawk from the edge of the party. It looks strange. Why don’t you join the other kids in the basement?”
Okay, so that’s the scene. As a reader of memoir, I can feel that girl’s embarrassment but imagine now if you, as the memoirist, talk about that scene without just jumping onto another scene.
A reflection about that might sound something like this:
I hated when he treated me like a little girl, and it happened all the time. No matter how grown-up I tried to dress or speak or behave, he always made me feel like a damn child. This happened for many years afterward, well into my twenties.
So obviously here, it’s clear that this is the memoirist later in life.
I used to think he was just an insensitive lug, but as the years have passed, I’ve wondered if he wasn’t just uncomfortable that I was growing up. His little girl was disappearing forever and he was trying to halt time by forcing a Teddy bear back into her arms.
So again, reflection is a moment of inner musing, giving your thoughts, your feelings, and making sense of what happened in that scene that we just read from the past.
Using takeaways in your memoir
This language I don’t hear much out there or read about on the internet, except mostly when I look at Brooke Warner and Linda Joyce Myers’ content. They really have a handle on this terminology. Brooke refers to how the publishing industry is always asking, “What’s the takeaway? What’s the takeaway?” The marketing and sales team at the publisher will all want to know, "What’s in it for the reader?" That’s really what they’re going for. So, you want to try to offer some of these to them.
A takeaway is like a reflection, but it’s a bigger observation. It’s something that is deeper. It’s maybe philosophical. It could be analytical. It explores a universal truth or the nature of things. Brooke recommends speaking in the second person when you want to practice getting better at this. If I talk right to you I can put myself in a headspace that makes me feel more philosophical and work through a universal concept.
Like, “When you become a parent, you start to notice. . “ this and,” and I could switch that to ‘I’ if I want. But that’s a good exercise in helping you think about these “step back”’ kinds of thoughts. So, for the scene in the cocktail party, I have another kind of reflection followed by a takeaway. So this is what it might look like:
When I became a parent, my perspective on Dad shifted. My God, back then I had no idea of the feelings he must have wrestled with watching his long-legged girl blossom. The girl who was always being mistaken for at least three years older than her age.
And now here comes a takeaway. You can hear the shift into more philosophical concepts:
Parenthood installs a brand new lens on the life camera, and it automatically twists that lens to a laser-focus. You can now see crisp, clear edges around the thoughts of the boys who look longingly at your little girl. You become able to zoom right in on the suffering of your son when the neighborhood boys run off with the football and don’t look back to ask him to join them. The shutter speed adjusts, bombarding you with crystal clear images of your child’s every embarrassment, every slight, every joy, every hurt, every fear. You have a baby and the lens points right into the eyes of that child and holds steady there for the rest of your life.
So that’s an example of what a takeaway could sound like. This passage creates a camera lens metaphor around the idea of the viewpoint of parenthood.
Takeaway does not have to be metaphorical at all. I’m a huge fan of metaphor in writing, so I like it. It can be overdone, so be careful. But, if you’re not already good at metaphor, I would say that’s really worth your time — looking into some exercises to incorporate some of that into your writing.
But again, the takeaway isn’t really about metaphor, though it could be. It’s your time to become a philosopher — an analyst of ideas — and present those after a scene. And again, not every scene because this could become exhausting too — but look at the depth that it could add to your memoir if you do this. It’s you digging deeper into something, it’s you thinking out loud as the current day adult, and it’s therefore giving depth to your memoir. More than just “this happened to me, that happened to me.” I’m stopping now to look back at it and see how that’s significant, what I see now.
Why reflection and takeaway are important
So what happens when there’s a meaningful nugget like this in memoir is, people might circle your passage in your book in pen! Imagine the joy! Somebody marked my words in pen! Maybe the reader stops and puts the book down to think about their own thoughts and how it applies to them — because that is what takeaway is about. It’s about a universal idea that makes your memoir now about me. This is what publishers eat like candy: How does this person’s memoir resonate with the reader, in a way that -- when I’m finished with that book I walk away thinking about my own life? Maybe it inspired me. Maybe you’re making me look at things differently. That’s memoir magic right there.
When I was thinking about takeaway this morning, I thought here’s a device that might help and make this interesting. If you want to take a run at this, you could quote someone else, someone famous. I was thinking about one of my favorite Dylan Thomas quotations: “Somebody’s boring me. I think it’s me.” I’ve always loved that.
And I thought, wow, say you were just writing a passage in your memoir about your boredom or your child’s boredom or something about boredom. You could step away, do a reflection from the current day memoirist. And then you could talk about, “Dylan Thomas said this. . . and really, isn’t that about our responsibility to entertain ourselves?” You can even use someone else’s wise or inspiring words as a jumping-off point: musicians, scientists, James Baldwin, Anaïs Nin. So that was my morning inspiration that I wanted to share with you.
So again, look up reflection and takeaway when you get a minute. Look up Brooke and Linda Joy’s work on that.
My favorite example of takeaway that Brooke cites is from Cheryl Strayed's Wild.
Strayed talks about how she’s on the Pacific Crest Trail, and she thinks she’s about to be run down by a Texas Longhorn bull. She goes into a takeaway, and it’s just terrific. In fact, if you have Wild — in the paperback, this takeaway is on page 69. It starts near the top and goes all the way to the bottom. It starts, “On the afternoon of the fifth day. . . .”
So if you get a chance look that up, or you can find it through a Brooke Warner thing. She’ll teach it to you as well, but that’s a great example of how she takes an immediate scene, and then she talks more theoretically about how she could see a bigger life concept in that specific moment on the trail.