Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The answer, of course, is ‘a lot’. Where fiction is malleable, fact is often rigid and difficult to shape into a palatable form. Memoir writers have to take a mountain of information and make something consumable and entertaining out of it. Real life is messy, and it needs a lot of tidying before it takes the form of a memoir.
On top of this, memoir writers have extra concerns. It’s easy to fall into a variety of traps; things that seem like they wouldn’t apply to memoir writers, or that apply to memoir writers in a way so unique they’re seldom discussed.
In this article, I’ll be exploring seven such issues; basic concerns that every memoir writer should have considered and made conscious choices about. The good news is that they aren’t just potential pitfalls, but things that can guide your writing and help make your memoir as well-written as possible.
The first of these issues is one of the most important, and yet something that’s often forgotten.
State your intent
What do you expect your memoir to do? Do you want readers to be entertained or understand you better, or is your focus on your experience of the writing process?
Making this decision, and expressing it as a statement, is an early and essential element of forming a relationship with your reader. There are a lot of different types of memoir. Compare A Child Called ‘It’, a terrible story of child abuse and the life that follows, with Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business, the life story of Dolly Parton. You can see that ‘memoir’ is not enough of an explanation of what to expect.
Humans can’t remain neutral for very long. We need a ‘stance’, even if it’s one we quickly abandon, and so stating what you hope to do with your memoir helps the reader take a relevant stance rather than choosing one you aren’t prepared for.
In Clothes, clothes, clothes. Music, music, music. Boys, boys, boys. author Viv Albertine states frankly but honestly in her introduction that she wants to make money from telling her story, and ‘hopefully you’ll have a bit of a laugh and learn a few things too.’
This is an important statement because writing a memoir seems counter to Albertine’s punk icon status; by addressing her commercial desires, but also honestly stating that she hopes for the reader’s interest, she dismisses any notion that she is a hypocrite and instead seems charming and open.
To state your intent you first need to know your intent, and this is vital for writing a good memoir. It establishes what your book is ‘about’, beyond yourself, and it will be helpful all the way through to be able to ask ‘does this serve my original intent?’ It will also be essential for setting boundaries.
What are you happy to talk about? Who are you happy to talk about? And, most importantly, where is the line? Surprisingly, setting boundaries is often much more important than what your boundaries actually are.
Readers hate to feel ‘cheated’; if they expect you to discuss something in detail, or to use real names, then they’ll feel betrayed when you don’t. You can head this off by making it clear how far you’re willing to go. Explain your stance on your own privacy, and the privacy of others, and stick to it.Set early boundaries in your memoir and your reader will accept them. Click To Tweet
There may be people who won’t read your work if they don’t like your boundaries, but they are relatively few and are asking for something you’re not happy to give. Far more numerous, and more irritated, will be the people who take offence if you appear to renege on the promise of your book.
Setting boundaries is done most easily through direct statement – ‘I am comfortable with A, B, but not C, because…’ – or early example. If you don’t want to just say what you’ll do, and what you won’t, then it can be helpful to demonstrate your boundaries within the first quarter of your book.
Michael Palin’s The Python Years: Diaries 1969-1979 is not particularly emotional, but this is shown early on. In later chapters the lack of outright emotional reaction to his father’s disability could feel like a glaring absence – something that the reader wants to understand but is not allowed to see – if not for smaller instances earlier on where Palin gives short, perfunctory explanations of what he’s feeling.
Don’t say anything that isn’t true
This is obvious advice, but some authors don’t understand that it should be followed out of respect for the readers rather than the subjects of the memoir. This doesn’t just mean ‘don’t lie’, it means ‘don’t present opinion as fact’. Don’t put words into other people’s mouths, or directly state their intentions or beliefs from your own point of view.
You are your readers’ only guide, and your opinions are therefore presented as the only opinions available to them. No-one expects impartiality, but they do expect a form of integrity that often means you have to present the other side to your own arguments. Refuse to do so and the reader will fill this void, forming their own counter-argument against you while resenting your attempt to steer them.
This doesn’t have to be restrictive. In her memoir, Albertine describes a situation where she felt unsafe with a man, and believed that if she tried to run he might attack her. In the end, a third party accidentally intervenes, and so Albertine and her readers never find out the man’s intentions. It would be easy for Albertine to paint the man as an objective threat, to describe hypothetical motives to the reader as fact, but instead she focuses on her own fears and perceptions. The reader understands Albertine’s situation and reaction completely, they may also agree that the man’s behavior seems predatory, but crucially they do so of their own volition.Readers want your opinions, but they don’t want them presented as fact. Click To Tweet
Presenting opinions as fact isn’t just dishonest, it’s almost always unnecessary. Readers are experiencing the story through the narrator; they’ll automatically favor your side of things. In fact, the time they’re most likely to disagree is if they feel you’re trying to control their reactions.
One important way to stop the reader feeling this way is to identify your assumptions.
Identify your assumptions
We all make assumptions about daily life, but these assumptions may not be shared by the reader. For example, a television personality understands that they are a brand, and that being offered a low-quality job for a small amount of money could therefore be something that would hurt them in the long run. To them, this would be a bad job, and yet to a far less wealthy reader, one who would love to be famous themselves, it could seem like a golden opportunity.
Differing opinions like this are fine; all the writer has to do to bridge this gap is explain why it’s a bad job, and how that could harm their career. The reader may disagree, but they’ll understand – the difference in opinions will be informed. Problems arise when the writer can’t see the ways in which their own understanding may differ from a reader’s.
In this example it’s entirely possible that the writer could describe a job which to the reader sounds amazing, name a salary that the reader can only dream of, and then dismiss the offer as insulting. Here, the reader will perceive the writer as deluded, snobbish, and unappreciative of their advantages.
It’s essential before writing your memoirs that you sit down and identify a) your assumptions, b) your intended readership, and c) those assumptions which will not be immediately apparent to your intended readership.
Again, it’s just a case of explaining your reasoning, but it can totally change how your reader sees you. This happens a lot in The Python Years: Diaries 1969-1979, where Palin often turns down roles or negotiates details, but the author always takes pains to explain why he thinks a particular deal is a bad idea. This allows the reader to follow his reasoning, and even gives more of an insight into an enviable career.
Edit for the reader, not yourself
Originally this advice was simply ‘edit’; just because events really happened doesn’t mean that your recounting of them isn’t subject to the same trimming and shaping that fiction requires.
On second thoughts, however, what’s essential is to edit for the reader. This means shifting your definition of what’s important or relevant. We can’t detach ourselves from our own lives, and yet you need to try and look at your life through someone else’s eyes if you want to write the best version of your memoir.
It may be that events which are important to you don’t serve the story, and as much as you want to relate them, they should be cut. Ego is the author’s enemy, and that goes double for memoirists. Be honest with yourself and decide whether or not every passage deserves inclusion. And while you’re at it…
Create an arc
It’s very seldom that a real life has an arc in the same way as a story. We are constantly changing, but not in a linear path from ‘bad’ to ‘good’. Relationships change or fizzle out, and sometimes we fail at things that we placed great importance in and just go do something else.
True though this is, readers expect some sense of resolution from any story, even a memoir. As the writer you have the ability to manufacture this feeling. Begin by identifying a feeling or moment that you feel ‘ends’ the memoir. It may be an emotional state you’ve entered, a personal discovery, or a goal reached. The key to making this feel like resolution to your reader is to make sure that the type of moment you end on is framed as a goal earlier in the book.
This could be in the sense of specifically wishing for an event, or simply framing earlier disappointments or failures in a way that makes the resolution feel like it’s applicable.Edit with the reader in mind; they’re here for a story, so know which one you’re telling. Click To Tweet
This doesn’t have to be huge – there’s no need to bend the truth – but do remember that to the reader, you’re a sort of character. They care about the ‘you’ you’ve written, and they want to see early grievances answered. Even if the only conclusion you have is that you feel hard done by, it’s important to discuss that in the context of everything that’s happened in your memoir. At the very least, you should reflect back on early troubles near the end of your book, addressing them from the context of later life.
It may well be the case that the reader holds a far stronger grudge on your behalf than you held in real life, so remember that having invited them on your journey, you have a sort of duty to navigate them out of the other side.
Write something only you can write
Above all, remember that your memoir is unique to you. It is very, very rare that we get more than one chance to tell our story, so you need to produce something that is satisfying for the reader but also honors and reflects your experiences.
The above rules are things to think about, observations on what readers look for in a memoir, but the most important thing is to draw your own conclusions. It may be that you think your story really doesn’t suit an arc or a resolution, and you may be right, but knowing that a reader expects these things from your story means you can proceed in a way that addresses that expectation.
Likewise, if you decide that you want to present certain things as facts it’s still important to know the ways in which your readers trust you, and to decide on your own boundaries on the basis of that knowledge.
As an author you need to trust your gut, and when you’re also the subject of your work that counts double.
For more on why your intuition is so important, check out Why Trusting Your Intuition Will Make You A Better Writer. Or for more on writing non-fiction try Give Your Memoir A Little TLC. Finally, for advice on taking a wider view of your personal story, check out Is Now The Time For An Alpha Reader? and Four Secrets That Will Turn You Into An Objective Editor.