Many aspiring authors come to me with questions about writing their memoirs. The answers to most of their questions can be found by looking at what the best memoirs have in common.
As an editor who has been working in the publishing industry for more than 20 years, I can tell you there are two characteristics memoir writers should consider. First, the best memoirs are character-driven. And second, memoirs are written in scenes.
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The Best Memoirs Rely on Character
The best memoirs are character-driven. These books spend time developing the relationship between the protagonist of your memoir (you) and the reader. As they read, the reader grows to love you, takes your side, understands who you are, is won over.
As a writer, you can develop your character to do this in a variety of different ways.
One way is to be vulnerable. For example, you may start by sharing a story that does not leave you looking like a princess—it reveals a flaw. If you think about mythology, for example, none of the heroes are perfect.
Another way is to show you who we were before we were transformed. For example, if you’re talking about your cancer journey, you may give the reader a glimpse of life before that season.
To get started, begin a developmental journal about what you want to write in your memoir. This writing may never make it into the book. But putting it down on the page will help you process and hone in on the content of your memoir.
Journal about what you cared about in the beginning. What were you thinking about during that time? What were you doing? If we were following you around with a video camera, what would we have seen you doing? Then, bring us into the scene the moment when it, whatever it was, happened.
It is also important to develop the characters of the people who were close to you at that time. Journal about what your spouse was like. What kinds of things were going through their mind? What would we have seen them doing if we were following them around with the video camera? Who were the other players in your life?
If you want to be able to flesh out the book in a way that comes to life for the reader, developmental writing is the best place to start.
The Best Memoirs Unfold in Scenes
The best memoirs have elements of the hero’s journey, universal elements of storytelling, in them. Plotting the memoir out with an outline will help you write a memoir that reads like a novel.
First, start with who you were before. Use the parts of your developmental writing that make you vulnerable. Show us the moment where you got the diagnosis. Include details you may not think are important but give texture, color, feeling to your experience. The goal is to bring us into the scene with you.
For example, you might start off the scene with driving down the road, and maybe there’s something that has nothing to do with cancer that gets involved. “And, so-and-so called, and I was really mad, and I said something really mean.” It was hot in the car. I was in the middle of nowhere.
And then all of a sudden, oh, my gosh, the other call came. It’s cancer. You pulled over.
Movies are a great place to learn about scene progression. Think about how the beginning of a movie fits with the middle of the movie, and then fits with the end of the movie.
Using what you learned in your journaling, your developmental writing, I want you to plot the important scenes of your story out in advance until you have an outline for your book.
Then you write.
Examples to Write By
If you are looking for more ideas about what the best memoirs have in common to help you write your own story, here are some of my personal favorites for reference.
One of my absolute favorite memoirs is Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. It’s the story of who she was as she became of age. She has scenes from her childhood and scenes from her adulthood. It talks about her sobriety and about her relationship with her father. It covers a lot of territory, but it is a gorgeous example of how to craft beautiful scenes.
The Afterlife of Billy Fingers by Annie Kagan is about her relationship with her brother after he died. He came to her and started speaking to her and she wrote it down. What I love about this book is that it is mostly chronological, but she tells the scenes in such a lively and funny way that I think it’s worth reading to understand how you can tell a chronology in scenes, which is not something I usually recommend.
The best memoirs—the ones that stand above the crowd and reach a wide, general audience—are the kind your mom reads, and your sister reads, and your dad reads, and everyone loves, because they are stories that are crafted like a novel. To write this caliber of memoir, the most important commonalities of those books is that they are character-driven and scene-driven.
Your memoir needs to be in the world. We would love to help you more on your journey.
We wish you happy writing!