Writing a memoir is a little bit more than just providing the details of your life. In fact, a memoir is not the entirety of your life, but rather an important piece. To better look into what a memoir is, consider a professional baseball player. Their life, or what you know of it is baseball. Though, this is also a person who has a personal life, of thoughts, feelings, love, loss, hopes, dreams, and believe it or not, they have interests outside of baseball. So, if you are a baseball player writing a memoir, you may choose to write about your journey through baseball from your personal experiences. However, if you are writing your autobiography you may include all of those other things. A memoir focuses on your life, but in most cases a certain interest of perspective of your life, or a theme that has followed you. This does not mean those other things matter, in fact they do, but it means the premise of your memoir is focused mostly on a specific theme of your life. For some that may be events lasting a couple of months, for others, those events will last your lifetime.
So, when I am reading (or writing) your memoir, here are five things I am looking for.
As mentioned, a memoir has a life focus. One good example is of a person who has experienced sexual abuse as a child. While the abuse may have last weeks, months, or years, the consequences of that abuse can have a permanent impact on your life after the abuse. For example, victims of sexual abuse often have addiction issues, difficulty in relationships, and some may even accept promiscuity as a normal way of life.
Your focus does not need to be as difficult as sexual abuse. For example, and one I use often, tennis could be a theme or focus to my memoirs. I was always rather quiet and shy. The one part of me that isn’t is when I am playing tennis. I’ve also moved a lot in my life cross-country, across cities, and even out of the country. The one theme that has followed me and allowed me to become comfortable is meeting new people on a tennis court.
So, what is the focus of your life?
A memoir is a story. It is your story. That means when I am reading your memoir I want more than just the facts. “I worked at Jimmy’s Pizza parlor, then when I was 16 I got my first car. I loved that car, but when I was 17 I needed to sell it.” That is telling what happened to you, but not telling me a story about you. Facts are fine, but they do not really tell me your story.
The way to tell a story often involves a series of personal stories that draw emotion, interaction with others, and the ability to show your reader who you are by how you interact with others and handle conflict.
Emotion is all about building up your characters and story and showing how loss or triumph really affects you. You can’t just say you were in love and the other person cheated. Sure, people will get it when you say you were sad. But, readers will be drawn into your story when you provide context of how much you loved that person. Talk about your first date, the things that made you laugh until your sides hurt. Talk about how you lost that person and how it impacted you.
You want the reader to have a similar experience as you had. That is how you draw a reader into your story and help them understand the importance of why you are writing your story.
An autobiography is essentially a chronological story of your life. Many people write it that way without finding a correlation or link from one event to the next – though they should. A memoir has a theme and therefore all stories you tell should have a relevant link to that theme. A link may be direct, or may provide context for a story that is a direct link to your theme.
A good (shortened) example of a relevant yet indirect link is this. “I spent years working on a pig farm as a kid. It was messy work and had me smelling like slop regardless of how many showers I took. I hadn’t been back to that pig farm in years, but after my accident I walked for half a mile through a farmer’s field on my way home and wouldn’t you have it, I ended up at the butt end of that pig farmer’s farm. That’s when the old farmer flipped me the keys to his ’57 Bel-air. I drove that car for the next decade.
In that story you could have just said a farmer gave you a car you loved. By providing a degree of context through other stories, you are building your story. Keep in mind that was a shortened example of multiple stories merging into one to make this post easier to read. In your story feel free to expand.
You may still have a lot of years ahead after you finish your memoirs. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wrap up your memoir in the end. A wrap-up is essentially talking about your life, your theme, and what you have learned or want to pass onto readers from your experiences.
I like to see a small conclusion at the end of each memoir because that shows me you are now, at a wiser age, evaluating your life and those are experiences that your readers (future generations) can’t learn in school as well as they will directly from you.