Guess what? The people I’m told to interview are not being written about because they are boring, “do-the-same-thing-everyday” people, they are chosen because they have done something extraordinary, something that is considered news-worthy. They have risen above life circumstances and they’ve done something that people want to read about.
I actually love these assignments. They tend to inspire and renew my faith in the condition of man.
But one thing that comes out all the time is that when I interview these people, invariably they say “I should write a book about all this.” Sometimes they should, sometimes they shouldn’t, that’s not my call but from my experience, if you want to write a memoir, at a minimum, this is what you will need for your story.
A story line
A good story line has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. It also has a plot with tension. Your experience shouldn’t be a breeze, we want conflict, we want to hear about getting a wrong diagnosis, being caught in an elevator when it’s time to deliver your baby, having your arm stuck between a rock and a hard place. If your experience doesn’t have a little bit of drama, a moment or two of “I don’t think she’s going to make it.” then it’s not going to be read by too many people.
Winning a multi-million dollar lottery is not going to make a good memoir. Winning that lottery and then spending all that money until you go into debt so that you have to work at a fastfood restaurant in order to feed your family and make ends meet, but learning there is honor in work – now that might be a story.
Just the facts ‘mam
Your memoir shouldn’t be your life story (unless you are incredibly famous and people might want to know everything about you) limit your story to the beginning, middle, and ending of your specific life adventure. This doesn’t mean that you can’t pull in relevant experiences from your past, by all means if faith kept you alive for 23 days on a raft then mention your Sunday school experiences as a child.
My point here is to limit the information. Make sure that everything supports the main experience, if it doesn’t then consider not keeping it in the story. Consider the extraneous the gristle on the steak, if you don’t get rid of it, your readers are going to have to work too hard and will probably end up leaving your book on the plate.
A memoir has to have an ending
A beginning, a middle, and an end. I talk to a lot of people who might have a good story but there is no ending yet, they haven’t finished chemotherapy, they haven’t risen above welfare, their child has finally gotten the medical help they’ve needed but have not fully recovered yet.
If you’re in the middle of an experience that you think might be good for a memoir, keep constant notes, maintain a journal, and hold onto all documents. You might even want to blog about it as it happens, the point is, you can’t write your memoir until there is some sort of closure to your experience (think a recovery, or rescue.) And please, if you have anger about your situation, let it cool off a bit before you write your memoir. Anger is a great motivator but it can also be quite the poisonous pill to writing making you seem bitter instead of victorious.
Could I do it?
The reason we read memoirs is because we want to learn from them. How did that guy find the strength to cut his arm off to survive? (and could I?) How did another mother battle illness while raising her large family (and could I?) What exactly does Daniel Craig do for his daily workout? (and can I pretend that I could? – see what I mean about famous people?)
The point of a memoir is to show how you endured a terrible or unusual situation and you lived to tell about it. We want you to be a better person for having gone through what you did.
We do not want to hear about how chronic illness stinks, what we really want to know is how despite chronic illness stinking, you were able to overcome and persevere. Inspire us to become the better person you’ve become because of your experiences.
Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.
Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens).
And yes, I am currently working on a memoir about living with the children and chickens.
Photo Credit: Chris Friese