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. [Read more…]