Many of us have stories to tell from our own lives but memoir is a difficult genre to master. This is a guest post on the topic from Dana Sitar, author of This Artists’ Life.
Part biography, part storytelling, part personal essay, part exposé, and even part novel, memoir vexes even the most adept of authors. Because a memoir is so rooted in the personal and emotional experiences of the writer, it can be difficult to approach with the same professionalism that we would apply to our other projects. Yet, we must.
When attempting to turn your great experience into a great book, these are the things to avoid:
Do not use your memoir like therapy.
This book isn’t your journal. It’s your work. If you’re writing a memoir to publish, then you’re writing for an audience. Don’t spew your stream of consciousness and focus on details that matter only to you. That will create a story that doesn’t make sense to your readers or convey the message that you’re trying to share.
Instead, focus on the lessons that you learned through the experiences in question. Think about the main point you want to make by sharing your story. How can you best express your point to your audience, so that they can apply it to their own experiences?
Do not worry too much about hurting people.
Of course be nice. But, don’t pull punches to the point that it’s detrimental to the story. In The Hart Compound, I changed names, tweaked events, and rearranged details to keep from exposing the people who don’t want to be a part of the book. But I didn’t ignore a good story just because it was potentially sensitive.
Instead, be open and honest with the people around you about your intentions, and they may decide that they’re okay with what you’re writing. Alternatively, remember that while a few people in your hometown might recognize a character in your book, the majority of your readers have no idea who that person is. If you’re serious about sharing a good story, don’t get too caught up trying to keep everybody comfortable.
Do not confuse memoir with autobiography.
Memoirs exist to express the essence of a moment in time, not to list a series of events. Don’t restrict your story to a front-to-back chronology of how you ended up where you are today.
Instead, hone in on the most compelling moments, memories, and emotions. Rather than focusing on the events of the story, focus on the purpose of it, and steer what you choose to share toward that purpose. Just as you would in a novel, allow yourself to skip time, ignore meaningless events – and get to the good stuff.
Do not make yourself the hero.
Your characters should be as dynamic as the ones you would create in fiction. It can be tempting to paint yourself the victim or the hero of every situation, but no character can be innocent all the time.
Instead, expose your weaknesses alongside your strengths. Sometimes, you have to make yourself the villain. Show where you fail, explain where you fall short, and your readers will appreciate your candor.
Do not try to appeal to everyone.
It’s a mistake of any author to try to market to too broad an audience. Don’t make your memoir generic in an attempt to draw in the most readers possible. Chances are, your experience is very specific, and if you try to write it for too many different kinds of people, the true point of it will be lost.
Instead, to have the greatest appeal, target a specific audience. Your writing will have a much stronger impact on readers who feel they can relate. (Bonus: Pinpointing your target audience will give your book a fantastic boost when you pitch it for publication!)
Do not wait for the right time.
Memoir doesn’t have to be about digging through old journals and photo albums and piecing together memories of a life lived long ago. Don’t hesitate to write your memoir because you think you haven’t lived enough yet.
Instead, start documenting your life right now. There are stories everywhere. Write a journal, keep a blog, take notes about the life around you. I’m only 26 years old. Instead of waiting until the end of my life to compile my memories, I write autobiographical short stories as they happen, and my memoir is an ongoing series. When a chapter of my life closes, I publish a collection of those stories.
Do not get too attached.
If an editor tells you that a scene doesn’t make sense to her – even if it happened in Real Life – it probably won’t make sense to your readers, either. Don’t ignore vital feedback because you’re too close to the events you’re writing about.
Instead, step away from the story.
Write your memoir with the integrity of the story in mind. Choose beta readers, reviewers, and editors who have no connection to the people, places, or events in the book – and listen to their suggestions. Be an artist. Write your story. But, don’t be stubborn.
About the author:
Dana Sitar is a freelance writer, editor, and blogger in the San Francisco Bay Area, and author of the ongoing memoir series This Artists’ Life. Her latest title, The Hart Compound, follows Dana on and off the campaign trail with the comedians who ran the 2011 Nick Hart for Mayor campaign in Madison, Wisconsin. The author shares writing advice and anecdotes at her blog by.dana.sitar. You can connect with Dana on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
Image: Flickr CC Koru Images