Monday, September 14, 2020

On Writing Memoir

"I've had an interesting life"

I'm glad, very glad.
But mine is interesting, too. Utterly compelling if I'm being completely honest here.

Yea right SharkForBrains

And so have all of the members of my family; every reader of this blog; even the folks who query me from jail.

Interesting, interesting, interesting.

But will someone pay $25.00 to read all about it? 

Of course they will, you think, then are heartbroken when I don't agree.


Religion, like memoir, often involves a recitation of events.
Every Good Friday, we gather to recite the events of the Crucifixion.
But it is not just the words that matter here; it's what those words mean to those of us saying them.

What illumination they bring.
What devotion they inspire.
What inspiration they provide.

A memoir is more than about what happened, a recitation of events.
A good memoir evokes feeling and provides illumination, and inspires us even if only in small ways.

And not just to people like you.
A good memoir does that for people who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.

So, yes, you've had an interesting life, but what does that mean for me?


What does that mean for those of you writing memoir?

Your query should focus less on the events of your life, and give more page time to how it will resonate with other people. You must answer the question "Why should anyone read this?" with something other than "It's interesting" or "because it's a great story."

Any questions? 


AJ Blythe said...

I know no-one would want to read about my life, so this will never be something I have to worry about. I do, on the other hand, love reading memoir.

Kitty said...

My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes, is one of the best I’ve read. I was attracted by the image of that raggedy little barefoot boy on the book jacket. Then I read those opening paragraphs and bought the book. No elaborate description necessary, just a straight-forward telling. I’ve read it several times over the years and loved it with every reading.

C. Dan Castro said...

Would this be true for biography in general? (In fact, is it true for almost all successful books? Technical manuals might be an exception.)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Yeah, I would not write memoir. However, a memoir I would relish would be that of our shark Queen. If she would ever write it.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Okay boys and girls here's a sort of mini-memoir and it won't cost you a dime.

1998, a banner year, a year of enlightenment for all man/woman kind, the year my first op-ed hit a national newspaper. (I can’t stop laughing). With hundreds of op-eds, articles, essays and columns under my every expanding belt, (I don’t wear belts because they are often too tight), I always, always, always, no matter the subject, wrote with a slant which, via our similarities as humans, allied me to the reader. With commonality as a guide I’ve been told I connected more often than not. If I simply share my experiences and vast wealth of wisdom, (I’m laughing again), I might as well put away my pencil sharpener.
Seriously though, to you memoir writers, do YOU want to spend your money and time reading about MY angle regarding what we all have in common as fellow human beings?
Naaaaaaa !
That’s why until I figure out a way to...make us all like/love each other, until I unlock the key to making us feel secure, until I can say with resolve that we can hug our loved ones without being afraid, until I can honestly say that I have figured out a way to respect my neighbors, (even the ones I don’t agree with), until I can prove through effort that I have full confidence in our truth-telling 89,000 word memoir sits on a shelf.
I haven’t figured out to do any of that stuff. (I’m not laughing anymore).

nightsmusic said...

I think I might have read three or four memoirs, period. While I find people interesting, I don't find most people interesting enough to want to know the minutiae so I don't read them. And while I too have had a very compelling life and little regret, I can't imagine anyone caring enough to spend $25 to find out.

Katja said...

I find this post very interesting! The question why anyone should read this is what sort of made me build my book as a novel rather than memoir.

I do think it's interesting and illuminating, even shocking, and helps a lot of people understand what OCD is and what it ISN'T. But this counts for those people NOT like me.

All the other thousands or millions of people who too have OCD won't read much new. Just confirmation and that they're not alone.

When I wrote it, I always felt I'd 'speak' to the people who have no clue about OCD or got it wrong (there are loads!). Some people even think it can be put to good use (it drove me mad when I read this recently!), or an article suggested that we now would all need a bit of OCD during this pandemic.

No. No, no, no, NO! Nobody needs it. Nobody!

Because there are already memoirs on this topic, and I'm not someone famous or interesting to the general public, I made it a story.

Why should anybody read it? Hmmm... Yeah, it's illuminating and entertaining, I hope. LOL.

I will keep asking myself this question now even for my second book. Not a memoir either.

Thanks for this post!

(I am back to throat trouble, and Fiancé is back to enjoying the quiet. I just nod or shake my head today, LOL.)

NLiu said...

I have nothing to add, except to say that husky picture made me laugh. Also, get well soon Katja! And don't leave it too late with the doctor's visits, i.e. don't do what I did and wait until you can't eat, drink and maybe, if being totally honest, breathe properly. With bad strep throat, antibiotics are your friends!!

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I do really enjoy a good many of the dogs books I've read haven't been dog training books necessarily, but dog memoir. And then there's the "go start a farm" memoir, and dogsled memoir (of which I need to read at least one more, Blair Braverman's), and travel memoir. And of course humorous memoir, like Jenny Larson's books, or Allie Brosh, which I guess are more meant to be anectodal and entertaining, rather than illuminating, necessarily.

I definitely think voice, as well as topic, is what makes these books good.

I will likely never write a memoir, dog or otherwise, for reasons you describe. What I do find myself doing (okay it isn't accidental, it is careful and deliberate craftsmanship) is putting biographical elements into my science fiction and fantasy. My short story "For Whatever We Lose" is entirely true, except where it isn't.

Craig F said...

I could write a great story about the Cisco Kid. He was a jailhouse dog that adopted me in the Clearwater drunk tank in days of yore.

That wouldn't be my memoir though, I would just be a dog writer.

Brenda said...

I read a ton of memoirs. It must be the peeping Tom in me. Frank McCourt’s stands head and shoulders above the rest. Like Kitty, I loved it. I still hold images from that book and it’s been at least ten years.

Katja said...

Yes, thank you, NLiu, I'm already on antibiotics because I was there where you were (not being able to drink and eat), but I have the feeling they don't work. It's happened in a different case before when they had to find a substitute for penicillin (I'm allergic).

I shall ring the doctor tomorrow, maybe. Going there is not really easy at this point. They try to prevent it because lots of Covid-19 cases where I live!

LynnRodz said...

I enjoy memoirs, it's a nice break from fiction and other non-fiction books I read, and as Kitty said, Angela's Ashes was a good one. The last memoir I read not too long ago was Sarah Marquis' L'Aventurière Des Sables. Great read, but the woman is crazy, imho. She walked 14,000 kilometres around the deserts of Australia. I thought my ex-boyfriend was crazy when he bicycled 6000 kilometres around Australia carrying 60 kilos of camping equipment, but he cycled and she walked. I don't think I would tour the Outback even in an air-conditioned camping car, but to each his own.

As Janet said, a good memoir has to evoke some type of emotion even though you have nothing in common with the person. And believe me, I had nothing in common with her, but I was rooting for her every step of the way through all the hardships she was experiencing.

Or if you're famous, or you know someone who is and you have a personal connection, that helps. I met someone recently who got the green light from one of the big 5 for that very reason.

Fearless Reider said...

I wrote my American Studies thesis on memoirs of second- and third-generation immigrants, beautiful works that ached with the authors' onging to fit seamlessly into American culture and a paradoxical nostalgia for a homeland they never knew. I read the genre less often now, but the right memoir placed into your hands at a needful moment is a treasure beyond reckoning. For me, that was "Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead" by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, which my mother gave to me after the death of our own little Charlie. Despite the disparity of our circumstances, the kinship I found in those pages was priceless. I've often been "recruited" by well-meaning friends who encourage me to write (and publish) our story. I don't know. For now, fiction is a safer place to unpack those dusty trunks in my mental attic, marvel at the cobwebs, and play with the ghosts who linger there.

What memoirs have you all read lately?

Fearless Reider said...

Oops, that would be the authors' "longing", not "onging." Should have had another swig of coffee first.

The Noise In Space said...

I'll be honest: the only memoirs I've read are the ones by the Spice Girls. The genre has just never been very compelling for me. *shrug*

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

I only occasionally read memoirs and only of those people I am super fascinated with. Last I read was the one by Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers. My favorites so far were those by Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey. (Hang on, they are memoirs, right?)

Brenda, I agree that Angela's Ashes is a superior memoir. Like you, I can still remember images and scenes. The mark of a truly good book.

But I do prefer biographies over memoirs, particularly of old Hollywood icons like Louise Brooks, Joan Crawford, etc.

AJ Blythe said...

A few comments here made me think...a memoir is an autobiography, right? I've only heard of them referred to as autobiography in Oz. If I'm wrong, can someone please explain the difference between autobiography and memoir!

And what is the difference in reading between a memoir/autobiography and a biography that makes you prefer the latter, Cecilia? I've always preferred an autobiography because it's the persons own experience versus someone's interpretation of that experience looking in from the outside.

LynnRodz said...

AJ, there are differences between a memoir, an autobiography, and a biography.

A memoir deals with a certain part of a person's life. For instance, the memoir I mentioned above only deals with the author's adventure walking 14,000 miles around the Outback. It's not about her entire life.

An autobiography is about a persons life that starts at the beginning when a person is born and continues until the present day. A really good autobiography/biography is Carlos Santana's The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story To Light. It's an autobiography because it's about Santana's life from birth up until it was written. It's also a biography because he didn't write it entirely himself, he had two co-authors who collaborated with him.

If it were written entirely by Santana, then it would be an autobiography. If written by just the two other authors it would be a biography.


Fearless Reider said...

AJ Blythe, an autobiography generally seeks to reveal (or sometimes obfuscate) a person's full life story, while a memoir often examines an event, era, relationship, place, etc. through the lens of one person's experience. You could write an illuminating, resonant memoir about 9/11 or love in the time of Covid-19 or that time you were a roadie for an emo Icelandic death-metal cowpunk crossover band without telling your whole life story. That's one thing I love about memoir -- you tend to get the most interesting bits without having to slog through the whole chronology of a person's life.

Fearless Reider said...

Sorry, LynnRodz! I was typing while you were posting -- you explained it very well.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


I prefer biographies since they're mostly written by someone else other than the subject or without the subject's intervention (and censorship), heavily researched and flexible in terms of storytelling. I find the reading experience richer.

After reading Billie Holiday's biography, I was never the same.

LynnRodz said...

No problem, Fearless Reider, you added some good examples.

AJ Blythe said...

This is why Reiders rock!

Thank you Lynn Rodz, Cecilia Ortiz Luna and Fearless Reider for being so generous with your responses.

Mary said...

I've written two memoirs and been fortunate enough to have both published (one coming out next spring. Pray for normal in person events). I did have to work hard to make sure that they weren't minutiae or a diary, though.