By: Marilyn L. Davis
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” ― Brené Brown
Nothing New Under the Sun?
I’ve created a truth for myself over the years. There is nothing new under the sun; the experience wore my face one time, and yours another. How might this concept prove invitational to someone struggling with an issue in their lives? By letting them know that others have overcome significant obstacles, made changes and now live better lives. In other words, there is someone somewhere who shares the experiences, the emotions, and the thoughts about the moments.
The memoir tells the story of the life, not the life story. I keep stressing this in all my posts about memoir, but it’s an important distinction. Just as important is that memoir must have appeal for the reader.
A great memoir can't just be about you. That's the paradox; it is your story, but it's your life events, feelings, attitudes, and experiences that are similar to mine that will compel me to keep reading the pages. Click To Tweet
When you tap into the truths, BIG truths, and universal truths, I’m going to keep reading. It is the larger truths contained in your story that I recognize from my life. William Zinsser advices us to, “Write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you remember them, it’s because they contain a larger truth that your readers will recognize in their own lives. Think small and you’ll wind up finding the big themes in your family saga. ”
Family, Fodder, and Feelings
Most excellent memoirs include family. Why? Because they were the individuals who shaped, molded and influenced us the most. Good, bad or indifferent, those people left a mark upon us. For some, that is literal – the scars show; for others, the scars are hidden within.
However, if you only write about the events that left scars and how horrible Mom, Dad or big brother was, you end up with a memoir of self-pity and self-righteous indignation for the most part.
However, wearing those scars and not being ashamed of them, shows the strength and resiliency of the writer. Those scars are a reminder of survival and healing, and there is the story that can help another.
“I think this is what we all want to hear: that we are not alone in hitting the bottom, and that it is possible to come out of that place courageous, beautiful, and strong.” ― Anna White, Mended: Thoughts on Life, Love, and Leaps of Faith
Well-written memoirs deal with pain, change or transformation, and a memoir cannot sustain the interest of the reader without emotionally charged passages that deal with relevant issues for the reader. Creating that tension means a reader will turn the page to find out what happened next, but more importantly, the writer takes us on their journey to healing, forgiveness and acceptance.
Not Just Pain, But the Promise of a Better Outcome
Readers must understand and empathize with the struggle to understand how the writer got from the uncertainty of the life to the lesson from the life.
- What about this writer’s past resonates for the reader?
- Is the reader struggling to make sense of their life?
- Does the writer offer hope or resources for the reader’s healing?
- Is this just reflective writing without analysis or understanding?
Readers want answers, not a vindictive diatribe against family, society, government, mean-spirited people, and on, and on, yet these entities may be the forces that propel the writer to undertake a radical transformation.
The writer can protest and use strong language and rail against them long enough to get readers enthused for the mission; just don’t expect all the readers to take up the cause.
While this may seem self-serving by referencing my memoir, Finding North, A Woman’s Journey from Addict 2 Advocate; it is an example of where I might believe that all who read it should join Faces and Voices of Recovery, or write to their congressman about the heroin epidemic in America. That’s naive and writers need to understand that unless their readers relate to the conflict, they’re not likely to read the memoir to find the resolution, nor become an advocate for the issue.
Pick the Best From Your Life
Writers can write anything from facts to fiction. Memoir is narrative nonfiction written in story form not unlike fiction. It’s factual but enhanced. For example, if it was a day like any other, how interesting is that? Yet, when you write the memoir passage of that day, reflect on what made it different. Study the day using your five senses. Was there more tension in the air? Was the sound of dripping water at the kitchen sink, a portent of something? Did the bacon burning in the frying pan serve as a metaphor for the events that unfolded? These are simply literary ways to enhance your memoir, without sacrificing truth.
Regardless of how you enhance your memoir to engage your reader, it must always follow the advice of George Orwell, “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself, at least, four questions, thus:
- What am I trying to say?
- Which words will express it?
- Are there images or idiom to make it clearer?
- How can I enhance the descriptions to engage my readers?
More posts to help you write the best memoir you can:
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing