Image: Matthew Loffhagen
You have a story to tell. Not just any story. Your story. An episode of your own life interesting enough to be captured in writing. Naturally, it’s important to you, but how do you make your memoir compelling to your readers?
Well, the good news is you don’t need to be a rock star or an astronaut to have a story that people will want to read. I’m sure you have chatted to a complete stranger at some point and come away thinking, “Wow! What an interesting person.” This is because that person has managed to find something extraordinary in the ordinary and tell it in a meaningful and appealing way. Being able to do this is at the heart of any good memoir.
Easier said than done, right? No, not really. You can do it too, and here’s how.
Memoir vs. Autobiography
Understanding the difference between memoir and autobiography will set you on the right course from the beginning. Amazon may put memoir and autobiography in the same category but there is still one key difference between the two: the timeline covered in the writing.
An autobiography usually covers the author’s entire life whereas memoir covers a specific event. An autobiography starts at the beginning and works chronologically to the end. Memoir on the other hand, has a less obvious structure, which leads me on to my next point.
Your story arc
You can be forgiven for thinking your memoir doesn’t need a beginning, a middle and an end. After all, you lived these events and life is not necessarily so well organized or structured. However, having a story arc will help you make some very vital decisions: where does this particular story start? Where does it end? What is necessary to that recollection? And, although particular details might have been interesting to me, what is unnecessary and should be left out?
Planning your memoir’s arc will give you focus and will ensure that you are not writing and rewriting scenes that shouldn’t be included in the first place. The biggest mistake when writing is telling every single detail of every event. Just because it happened to you, doesn’t necessarily make it interesting or worthy of being included in your memoir.
A very helpful question to contemplate, when planning your story arc, is why you are writing a memoir in the first place?
Who or what inspired you to put pen to paper? Have you wrestled and overcome illness? Did you leave your old life behind and start afresh in a new country?
Though it may be a true story, think of your memoir like a novel, with goals to achieve and challenges to overcome. This will help create the arc. You never know, it may also help you remember a few choice happenings that would otherwise remain buried.
Let’s take Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning as an example. Here we can see a classic story arc with a beginning, middle and end:
– Beginning: Lee, as a young man, leaves his country home and heads for the big city
In the beginning, we meet you as you embark on something new and we learn something of your intentions and aspirations.
– Middle: He leaves for Spain where he travels, works and gets to know people, as a climate of civil unrest gradually develops
The main body of the story, divided into sections by whatever formed the focus of your life. Lee’s tale is of a journey and so splits obviously into places he journeyed to, but jobs, people and countless other influences can all be used to segment your memoir.
Events which foreshadow the climax may be introduced to build interest.
– End: Civil war breaks out, forcing him to flee for home
The events you have been building towards, which signal the end of this part of your life. Deciding how your memoir will end is very important and is something often neglected because life goes on, right? Yes, but your memoir shouldn’t. Your memoir should end when the intentions or aspirations mentioned in the beginning have been achieved.
With good narrative structure you can pique, maintain and satisfy your reader’s interest. Without it, you cast them adrift into events which may only have meaning to you.
Universal appeal lies in a good theme
All great memoirs are based on a universal idea or theme that everyone can understand. Having a central theme invites your readers to connect with you as you write about your journey toward deeper truth and meaning.
Examples of themes include:
- Acceptance, communication and love (think Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie).
- Self-discovery and happiness (think Elizabeth Glibert’s Eat, Pray, Love).
Figuring out your theme will depend on the kind of story you are trying to tell and what message you want to leave your audience with. Don’t try too hard to create a message that people will love. Instead, ask yourself why you are writing your story in the first place; this will lead you to your theme.
Show more, tell less
The principle of show and tell is one that often crops up in fiction writing, but it is absolutely vital to memoirists. Putting the reader in your shoes invites the reader to share the experience with you, as well as come to his/her own conclusions about your personal journey.
Rather than tell your readers how you felt or what you were thinking at the time, use action, setting and dialogue to show them. In The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls shows the reader her mother’s poverty:
Mom stood fifteen feet away. She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash while her dog, a black-and-white terrier mix, played at her feet.
I’m sure you’ll agree this sentence is far more engaging and effective than a simple, “my mother was poor” will ever be. Why? Because the reader is given enough information to feed the imagination, which is, after all, why we read books.
Let your reader make their own decisions
Remember, your readers know what it’s like to be human, and this is of great advantage to a memoirist. As you unfold the events, your readers will develop their own feelings about them and their significance, and allowing your readers this involvement makes your memoir far more engaging than prescribing exactly what emotion is appropriate at every turn.
Here, in Touching The Void, mountaineer Joe Simpson describes a potentially lethal situation in the Peruvian Andes:
My left foot slipped and the crampon points skittered on the rock. I hated this sort of delicate balance climbing, but I was committed to it now; no going back. As I balanced on two small edges of rock, front points teetering on the verge of slipping, my legs began to tremble and I shouted a warning to Simon.
Though he does say he hates this type of climbing, that merely provides background: he doesn’t tell us anything about how he felt about this situation. The tension comes from the fact that we can all appreciate that it would be scary to be precariously balanced on a rock face. His trembling legs, not his thoughts, show us how he felt.
That said, however, even the most dramatic events could be reduced to a series of impassive bullet-points. This would prevent your reader from learning anything about what makes you tick, so don’t completely remove your thoughts and emotional reflections from the piece. Simpson continues:
I knew it would take just a couple of moves to reach easier ground, and tried convincing myself that if this wasn’t so terrifyingly exposed I would walk up it, hands in pockets, but I couldn’t shake off the fear.
Be realistic…and if you can’t, at least be honest
As is the case with a novel, characters in a memoir need to be believable. You may expect people to automatically come across as real because, well, they are real. Careful though: when describing a school bully, for example, you run the risk of making them into an unrealistic pantomime villain. Although this may be how you remember them, if you genuinely have no more detail to flesh them out, there’s no shame in admitting it.
In fact, as long as you’re honest about your limited representation of them, these characters serve to tell the reader a bit more about you and your perceptions. In Moab Is My Washpot, Stephen Fry speaks rapturously of his first schoolboy crush, Matthew Osborne:
He wore the same uniform as everyone else, but it was transformed, as even the air around him was transformed.
Every mention of him during the time they knew each other makes him sound unimpeachably ideal:
He was beautiful, like the feet of the Lord on the hills, he was beautiful.
He’s very clear that he’s being honest about the way Matthew appeared to him at the time:
I am telling you the feelings that ran through me and, painfully predictable and mimsy and effete and bloodless as they may seem, those were my feelings…
Fry eventually concedes that, a few years after going their separate ways, he sees a photo of Matthew, older and noticeably changed, and realizes that:
Now the only Matthew who really existed, existed in my mind.
Fry doesn’t really claim that he went to school with a pure, living embodiment of love and physical beauty, and if he did we wouldn’t believe him. In describing Matthew this way, he is really telling us about his own fledgling emotional maturity.
Your cast of vividly described characters adds to your reader’s feeling that they are immersed in your life, but more one-dimensional characters nevertheless provide a useful reflection of you and your attitudes.
Believe in yourself
If you believe that your story is worth telling, tell it—at the very least, don’t be too afraid to try. Just make sure you tell it in a way that is engaging.
Draw your readers in with a well-planned story that develops towards a conclusion, and introduce them to characters with real personality. This is how you would write a compelling novel that a reader really cares about, and the same will be true of your memoir.