By: Marilyn L. Davis
“Storytelling is ultimately the only way that we know besides song, dance, painting, and music to share with our tribesmen what it means to be human, express the indefinable feelings that unite humankind.”―
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, make changes, and live better lives.
In other words, there is someone somewhere who shares the experiences, the emotions, and the thoughts about the moments.
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 to 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 advises 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 Make The Memoir
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 remain 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 writer’s strength and resiliency.
Those scars are a reminder of survival and healing, and there is a story that can help another.
“I think this is what we all want to hear: that we are not alone in hitting 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. 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, and as we’re turning pages, the writer takes us on their journey to healing, forgiveness, and acceptance.
Not Just Pain, But the Promise of a Better Outcome
Readers must want to follow along as the writer goes from uncertainty to learning the life lessons and changing. How can you engage the readers?
- What in your past will resonate with 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 naïve, 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 for the Memoir
Writers can write anything from facts to fiction. A 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, an omen of something?
- Did the bacon burning in the frying pan serve as a metaphor for the events that unfolded?
These are merely 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?
Find your story; make it come alive for the reader; create tension, conflict, and pictures in the reader's mind. When you tell your story like this, it has a way of becoming our stories through the universal lessons. Click To Tweet
More posts to help you write the best memoir you can:
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
How can you help us write better? Can you enchant us with your poetry? Got a story? Then consider a guest post at Two Drops of Ink.