Chip MacGregor

October 1, 2013

What do I need to know about memoir?


I’ve had several people ask me about memoir lately. It’s been a growth category lately in publishing, and that means we’re going to see more memoir proposals from writers. In reviewing what we’ve been seeing, could I offer three general tips to keep in mind about the genre?

First,understand the difference between memoir and autobiography and self-help or personal story. An autobiography is simply the review of one’s life — the events the happened, in order, covering the who, where, when, and what. In other words, an autobiography is history. A memoir, on the other hand, isn’t bound by those restrictions at all. The focus is on remembered events of the author, so it can cover the big days, skip most of the other days, and focus on lessons and themes and memories. Sometimes an author will simply tell his or her personal story, in order to create a book that attempts to help readers live more successfully in a particular area (finances, health, parenting, spirituality, etc). That’s not a memoir, but a self-help book using the author’s personal story as a backdrop on which to hang the lessons. Autobiography is out. Personal stories, for the most part, are out. Memoir is in.

Second, don’t assume because something interesting happened to you, it will be of interest to others. often get people sending me a fascinating personal story — “THIS happened to me, and everybody tells me I should write a book about it!” My response is usually: “yaaaaaawn.” Yes, interesting things still happen. Yes, I think people can change. Yes, I believe God is alive and doing great things. Yes, miracles can occur. And yes, lives get changed in incredible ways, and the re-telling of that can be valuable (just like we re-tell our personal stories to our kids, and just like the ancient tradition of having people share testimonies in church) .But the fact that something amazing happened to you does not have anything to do with the creation of a book. The whole “personal story” book era has come and gone (circa 1977). For the most part, nobody is buying your personal story unless you have celebrity, or major media, or a big speaking platform attached to it. However, IF you can write exceptionally well, AND you’ve got a big story, AND you can reveal yourself on the page, AND get beyond the retelling of what happened in order to get us to think about the greater issues of how that changed you and why that’s important, THEN you’ve got the potential to write a memoir. Again, as a reader I’ve got to relate to your character, trust that you’re being honest, be interested in your story, and expect you to relate to timeless questions about life faced in complex circumstances. I want to read about the decisions you made, knowing those decisions might not have been right, and then read about the results. If all those things come into play, you’ve got potential with your memoir.

Third, don’t tell me about all your mistakes — show me. Make me like you before you dump dirt. If I’m not feeling sympathy for you, I’m going to stop reading. So don’t just share a bunch of bad stuff about your family, thinking your catharsis is necessarily fascinating reading to others. Don’t assume I’m interested in something just because you are. Again, story will trump a recitation of events. (In I WENT TO THE ANIMAL FAIR, Heather Harpham reveals the presence of some mental illness in her family by telling the story of visiting her grandmother’s house one day and finding toast nailed to the wall. Her entire family was there, but nobody talked about it. They all pretended they didn’t see it, or maybe that toast on the wall was a routine occurence. A fascinating detail.)

I tend to think writing memoir is a hard task, since you have to be skilled in telling the truth, which is nonfiction writing, yet use fiction techniques to keep readers with your story. And, frankly, there are VERY few writers who do both fiction and nonfiction well — which is why there are so few American writers who excel on both the fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists. They require different skills, in my view. I love memoir, but it’s one of the hardest genres to write well. 

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