Memoir is a true story told by the person who experienced it. It is fact – or as close to fact as we can come with our fallible memories – and is therefore considered nonfiction. But sometimes book coaches who coach memoir use the tools of fiction to help their writers write great books and sometimes we use the tools of nonfiction. What’s behind this reality?
I believe that memoir is one of the toughest genres to write, to sell, and to coach, because it demands skills and tools from both the fiction and the nonfiction side. I am speaking here about writing memoir with the hope of getting it published – which is to say, read and embraced by people who don’t know you. Writing memoir because you want to remember something, or process something, or make sense of your life, or share it, or leave a legacy for your family is a different endeavor altogether. But if you are writing because you want strangers to engage with your story, and learn from it, and become immersed in it, and inspired by it, you have to approach it with a different mindset.
What Exactly Do I Mean by Memoir?
What exactly do I mean by memoir? Different people have different ideas, so it will be helpful to sort it out. What I don’t mean:
- The Story of My Whole Life. This is an autobiography and usually only very famous people publish them.
- A Random Collection of Interesting Vignettes from My Life. This is what people like David Sedaris and Tina Fey write but they get to do it because they are David Sedaris and Tiny Fey. We pay attention because they are who they are. Unless you are truly gifted and/or have a large platform and/or want to self publish, you will have a very hard time getting a collection of random vignettes published and read.
- A Collection of Personal Essays From My Life. Personal essays rely on the writer’s experience — stories from their life — but they are designed to offer commentary on something, either individually or taken as a whole. I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell is an excellent example of a book like this. Each chapter in the book is a meditation on a near death experience she had. Taken together, they add up to a powerful point about the fragility of life. Glennon Doyle’s Untamed would also fall under this category. This is a difficult structure to pull off.
- A Self-Help or How-To Book That Includes a Few Stories From My Life. A straight how-to book would be something like Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance by Leonard Zinn or Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done by Laura Venderkam. These books might include a few stories from the author’s life, but they are explicitly designed to teach and so we think of them as how-to books.
- How-to or Self Help That Includes a Lot of Stories From My Life. Many books combine memoir and how-to in a hybrid structure. Books like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott or How to Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi are explicitly designed to teach and inspire — how to live the life of a writer, how to be anti-racist — but also includes extensive stories from the author’s life to illustrate the point the book is making.
A Specific Story From My Life — Narrative Memoir
What we are left with if we leave all these other kinds of memoir aside is a memoir that is A Specific Story From My Life. This is what most writers mean when they say they want to write a memoir. They want to take an idea from their life — a specific story or a thread of an idea about something that happened to them — and they want to share their story with others who might benefit from it. The intention of this writer is not to capture their whole life on the page, but to reflect and share a slice of it, and to do so in a way that captures a reader’s attention.
Cheryl Strayed wrote a narrative memoir when she wrote Wild. When Breath Becomes Air, Educated, Eat, Pray Love, and A Walk in the Woods are all narrative memoirs. Readers may have learned a great deal from these stories, but the writer’s primary intention was to tell an engaging, educational, entertaining tale, not teach us how to do something.
Using the Tools of Fiction
In the best narrative memoirs, the writer has figured out a way to see themselves as the protagonist of the story. They have managed to step outside of the events of their lives – the facts of their lives – to see the arc of change or transformation they have experienced, and they have captured that arc on the page.
We think we know everything about those author’s lives because we read the memoir they wrote, but we don’t a thing about them, really: we only know what they chose to tell us, what they pulled from their lives to trace a specific arc of change. Scene by scene, using the tools of fiction, they made a character of themselves and let us into that character’s mind and motivation as the great novelist’s do.
Those tools include writing dialogue that gets at what is not being said as confidently as what is; learning how to show the scene instead of telling us about it; getting emotion on the page in a way we can experience it; and letting us inside the character’s thoughts and fears, lies and motivations, hopes and desires.
The danger with writing narrative memoir using only the tools of fiction is that too often memoir writers only focus on the story – the plot, what really happened – and not on the point or the purpose of that story. Reading a memoir like this is akin to reading someone’s journal, and not usually anywhere near as engaging as you might think.
So the question the narrative memoir writer needs to ask is: How will I make sure that my memoir isn’t self-serving? How will I use my story to illuminate a larger truth or universal point for an audience of readers who will care?
For that, using the tools of nonfiction work best.
Using the Tools of Nonfiction
When working with a nonfiction writer, a book coach starts by digging into the overarching purpose or point of the book. Whereas in fiction, we put the spotlight on character and story, on the nonfiction side, we put it on purpose and structure.
A memoir writer knows what happened and how it felt; they lived it. If you ask them to recite the events they are writing about – to slug them out on a timeline or in a bullet point list – they can do that. And they can no doubt speak eloquently about what it all meant to them, and what emotions were present at any given moment. They have spent a lifetime watching that movie in their head. But they have likely done very little work on what it might mean to other people – on what readers might take away from their tale, and on the best way to shape the material to give the reader the desired experience.
When coaching a hybrid memoir or a how-to using the tools of nonfiction, we ask these kinds of questions:
- Who is the book for?
- What does that audience want? Education, escape, entertainment, solace, understanding, an experience of a particular kind of emotion, such as love or grief or fear?
- What other books are these readers already reading in this realm — Novels? How to? Other memoirs?
- What structure would best serve the story? This might include the question of whether or not a hybrid approach might work better (the way it did in Bird by Bird or How to Be An Anti-Racist, books that are part memoir, part manifesto, part how-to.) Many times people think they want to write narrative memoir, but what they really want to write is self-help or how-to; it is through the process of asking all these foundational questions that they come to the conclusion of what structure will best serve their story.
- How, specifically, do you plan to get the book into reader’s hands? How can you best connect to people who will respond to what you have to teach?·
It’s Not Either/Or
The way I am presenting things here – the fiction approach to memoir, the nonfiction approach to memoir – is an artificial conceit. When coaching memoir, I use all these tools. And, in fact, when coaching in any genre, I use all these tools.
In a how-to book or a historical biography or a collection of personal essays (nonfiction books), the author needs to know how to write a scene with a structure and dialogue that allows the reader to feel emotion. I was just working with an author who is working on a book on leadership that starts with a story from her own life. As written, it was very flat. We worked on how she can hold tension in the story by not giving away the conclusion too soon; on how she can give more context so that the emotional payoff is bigger on how she can let the reader into her motivations and desires in the moment. If you had been listening in on our conversation, you would have thought this writer was working on a novel.
When writing a novel, the author needs to know who her audience is and why they are coming to this work. She needs to know what else that reader is going to be reading on this topic, and what the best structure might be for containing the tale. I was just working with an author who is writing a middle grade book about religious identity, among other things. We have been talking about what kids this age hear in the news every day during these very fraught times, what their parents are talking to them about at the dinner table every night, what the role adults have in either shielding them from ugly truths or educating them about them. If you had been listening in to this conversation, you would have thought this writer was working on nonfiction.
Becoming a good memoir writer is about building your skillset so you know how to execute the book you envision, no matter how it is shaped and classified.
Are you writing memoir? Are you using the skillset of a novelist? What memoirs have made an impact on you as a reader?