Because it is rooted in experience, memoir can seem the most accessible of the nonfiction sub-genres. And great memoirs read like fiction, lending the false impression that writing a great life story is easy. Editors know that memoir is surprisingly difficult to do well. Here one of our skilled resource partners and memoir specialist, August Tarrier, dishes on the do’s and don’ts for creating great personal stories.
1. You don’t have to start at the beginning. Shed the constraints of starting with your earliest childhood memory, and instead focus on hooking readers with the big epiphany. Consider starting at a moment of triumph, or a moment of crisis, and then go back in time from there. Many people these days are writing memoirs about a specific experience or a discrete period of their lives. It can be daunting to try to pinpoint the starting point of your life story. Instead, choose a defining moment and work backward. Once you have a clear focal point, it will likely be easier to figure out which are the crucial episodes in your life that led up to that pivotal moment in time. Use those as the building blocks of your story.
2. Don’t include everything. Readers don’t want every last detail; they want a compressed and carefully crafted version of events, without all the mundane in-between moments that dilute a story’s impact. In addition to looking for what is worth including, you’ll need to be a bit ruthless about what you leave out. Only by leaving large chunks on the cutting room floor will you be able to shape it into the most exciting, intensely compelling version of itself. A successful memoirist prunes the messy events of a full, rich, complicated life into a crisp, clear narrative arc.
That said, it can be tricky to get enough distance from your own life to know what will make for riveting reading for others and what won’t. One key is to consider your experiences in terms of how much impact or significance they had on you. Think of the experience itself as a lens through which to highlight a broader theme. The memoirist isn’t just describing what happened; they’re putting the experience under the microscope and providing key details that enable the reader to draw meaningful conclusions.
3. Embrace the hard stuff. Rather than being scared of your lowest moments, consider this is what brings memoir to life. Part of why readers are so drawn to these stories is that they often show people overcoming incredible challenges. If you gloss over the hardships, readers won’t experience the redemption and transcendence that are a hallmark of the genre. If you’re worried that it will be too dark, consider balancing out some of the harder moments with some levity. It can be difficult to write about deeply personal moments, but push yourself to a place of discomfort and linger there awhile. That’s where you’ll find the real story.
4. Don’t worry about not remembering exactly the way it happened. Many writers worry that they don’t remember exactly how the dialogue played out. Or they don’t know what another person was thinking at the time. Memoir is not biography. It is a story, and you are the storyteller, which gives you a certain freedom. In some cases, you can rely on framing tactics, such as, “I can imagine she was thinking . . ." In other cases, if you’re true to the spirit of the moment and the general meaning of a conversation, you shouldn’t dwell on whether you captured it word for word. Again, you’re writing for the greater truth.
5. Make readers care. Memoir is about finding ways to make readers resonate with your experience. Even if they haven’t been in your shoes, you want your story to feel accessible to them. One way to do this is to take a step back from the scene and include a line in your current point of view that ties that moment into a more universal feeling we can all relate to. If you are describing a scene in which you were a child, standing on the high dive and trembling with fear, you might then insert your adult POV with a line like, “For all of us, standing at the precipice can be terrifying.” This doesn’t mean generalizing—the key to compelling memoir is evocative details and vivid, fully realized emotions, after all—but finding the universality in the moment, which will reinforce readers’ sense of connection to you.
6. Finally, read, read, read. Figure out what grabs you in other memoirs. Study their framing devices. Analyze the way they use point of view. Identify the tent poles that anchor the story and tune in to the emotional arc of the story. Then take a deep breath, trust your voice, and get to work.
August Tarrier teaches writing workshops for community groups, at universities, and in prisons. She lives in Philadelphia.