Writing Memoir – It’s Not All about You

Everyone has a story to tell. Are you ready to tell yours?

Susie_John_Brenda_1962_03I love memoir; the intimacy of it, the truth of it. Memoir shares a life and time. Good memoir is both more and less than a history lesson or autobiography. The writer’s thoughts and feelings unfold with the story to reveal something larger.

More than simple facts, memoir shares the writer’s interpretation of events. My sister and brother are often amazed at both my memory for detail and my bald-faced lies. A poor, pitiful middle child, these are my truths and I wear them with pride. Each of us sees the world through a unique set of filters. There is no single reality. Facts are relative because our experiences and observations are filtered through our individual history, strengths and foibles.

For the past two years, I have been leading a memoir writing group. These writers’ experiences and observations span more than six, seven or eight decades so they have an almost infinite stockpile of topics. As they read their stories every week, I suspect that their eighth grade English teachers beam down on them with pride. Technically, their writing has been solid from day one. However, while those technical skills continue to improve, their immeasurable growth has been in their ability to identify and share stories that are bigger than they are.

Good memoir shares an event or series of events while simultaneously illustrating a universal theme. A camping vacation is more than logistics and an itinerary; it is a story of family love. A business deal is more than widgets in exchange for dollars; it reveals the good, the bad and the ugly of human nature. An illness in the family, physical or mental, reveals our fortitude, fragility or both, usually both.

No matter how ordinary it may, at first, appear on the surface, a powerful story will reveal something beyond a anecdote or colorful character. As you sit down to write a story, draft it, edit it and polish it, ask yourself, “What is this story about?” If it’s a good story the answer will be more than, “It is a story about the summer I spent with my aunt.” It might be something like: “This is a story about determination as illustrated by my aunt’s campaign to save the wetlands.”

The first story could easily devolve into a list of activities from a not particularly interesting discussion with a governmental agency to a hot, dull afternoon on a picket line. If you are witty and clever, the stories will be fun and entertaining. In the second approach, you will share what you learned from and admire about your aunt. It may even show how that summer helped transform you into the person you are today. This story will have depth and meaning and it can still be witty and clever.

So yes, memoir is personal but it’s not all about you. Good memoir goes beyond events and personal musings to share a universal truth. To resonate with others, the story must be bigger than a single individual and transcend the writer’s life. There are many truths to share; love and loss, courage and cowardice, family and friendship and more. A whole lot more.

Susan Nye
is a corporate dropout turned writer, blogger and teacher. She is a regular contributor to a variety of New England magazines and author of two short stories published in the NH Pulp Fiction Anthology Series. Feel free to visit her blog Susan Nye – Around the Table

© Susan W. Nye, 2014

31 thoughts on “Writing Memoir – It’s Not All about You

  1. Excellent analysis and advice. There are stories and there are stories. And you explained the differences nicely.
    Do you think sometimes people are hesitant or feel “unworthy” of writing something with a universal theme/truth when if they look at life’s events like this, it’s not such an impossible task?

    • Phil – Thanks for stopping by. Yes, yes, yes – My senior citizen writers are not part of the selfie generation and on several occasions they have commented on their own audacity and presumption to write memoir. In answering their concern, I share – we write memoir because we can – because we can string words together in a beautiful, interesting, wonderful, fascinating, funny (you name it) way. More important, we write memoir because we have something to say and something of value to share. I like to think that the connection to a universal theme is what separates an interesting anecdote from good memoir – the clever cocktail party story from something worthy of memoir.

      I truly admire this little group. With their stories, they put themselves out there. It takes courage to write your story and then share it with others.

      Take care – Susan

  2. I enjoyed this post because, although I have enjoyed reading memoirs for years, and have made some attempts at writing, I have never considered how large a piece can be when it is telling such a seemingly small and personal story. Thanks!

      • Welcome!

        A few years back, a friend of mine gave me a set of four books, narrating the story of one of the more accomplished poets in Hindi language – Harivansh Rai Bachchan. I found it truly great, simply because other than recounting the ups and downs of his life, he had connected the events in his own life to what was happening in India then.
        His son, Amitabh Bachchan, is an icon of sorts. After going through his father’s autobiography, I could see the source of Amitabh’s versatile personality very clearly.
        Just wanted to share this with you.

  3. This was such a timely piece for me. I have been working on a memoir and struggling with what you are talking about here. I don’t want it to be a narcissistic vacuous bore. I want the universal theme, the underlying message, the emotional tug, to be rewarding and compelling for the reader. Thanks for reminding me to keep my eye on this.

    • Marylin – Thanks so much for stopping by and your kind words. I took a look at your blog and I will be back. We also have Alzheimer’s and dementia in our family – my mother and both her parents. It is a difficult journey and you are good to share yours with others. Take care – Susan

  4. Too bad there are so many fake or highly embellished memoirs out there. I did enjoy “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls, but it stretched believability.

    • Sarah – Thanks for stopping by. You raise an interesting question – how many memoirs are faked or embellished? And how many are true memories but not exactly true representations of the events. Our memories are colored by our experiences and perceptions. Like I said, my sister and brother are amazed at my memory for detail and bald-faced lies. They remember many of the stories I tell differently – my take is that all three versions are true. I loved both of Jeannette Walls books. I assume that publishers are being more careful since the James Frey debacle – but who knows? Take care – Susan

  5. Thank you, Susan for opening up a whole new world to me.Universal themes seem to appear with no planning. Reminds me of drawing a picture with words. And it’s so much fun!

  6. Well said! Good memoir is good because it resonates with readers on a universal level, even readers who have totally different life experiences. I love to read memoir for how it connects me, if not experientially, then emotionally, to the author.

  7. Thank you Susan, this was a great piece for me to read right now. Almost all of my writing is currently snippets from my life, and what is missing is the universal theme that you describe. My goal will be to tie my posts together at some point, rewriting them to tell one big story, as opposed to a pile of ‘moments’. This was very inspiring.

  8. I started writing stories for memoir for a NaNoWriMo project. I realize the need to make something interesting out if it, and I thank you for sharing this information, giving me a sense of direction.

  9. Hey Susan

    You brought tears of joy, pride and empowerment to my eyes through your wonderful article. Yes, memoirs go beyond the ‘Me’ to encompass one or many universal truth(s). BRAVO!!!!

    BEST Wishes

    PS: I enjoy doling out hugs, so here is a #CushyHug for you!

  10. Pingback: Memoir or Revenge | Live to Write - Write to Live

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