Why Would Anyone Read Your Memoir?

By Jerry Waxler

Beginners often fear their lives aren't important enough to write. But the reason their tales lack intrigue is not because of the subject matter but because of the skill with which the material is crafted. The journey of a memoir begins with memories. The next step is to learn the skills required to make them compelling. One way to develop a deeper understanding of these strategies is to pick apart memoirs that have made it to the bookstore. That's what I've been doing for years, learning not only how memoirs are written, but also getting to know a wide range of life situations I would not have been able to learn any other way.

You can also learn these techniques by attending Creative Nonfiction classes, which teach you how to apply the craft of storytelling to your actual life experience. These courses have only been around for a few decades, so when I was in high school and college in the 60s, there was no such thing. But Creative Nonfiction is not new at all. It is as old as civilization.

Here is the key to any story: a protagonist wants something. By overcoming obstacles, the character grows. This structure is well known by literature departments that study the way other people have written stories. As memoir writers we need to apply these rules to our own experience.

External desires are easy to explain. You wanted to be a beauty queen, or wanted to get into a certain college, or wanted a particular mate. But internal drives are subtler. For example, if someone close to you died in a devastating accident, your initial desire was wishing it had never happened. But you can't have that. The next wish is to reclaim poise and dignity. In my opinion the evolution of desire fuels the most interesting memoirs. After the setbacks, how did you cope?

Memoirs are psychologically oriented, so memoir readers come to the genre curious about inner challenges. What moods, fears, or beliefs stopped your forward motion. What strengths helped you overcome these obstacles? These internal conflicts create the dramatic tension that keeps memoir readers turning pages.

By the end, your reader wants to know how your initial desire worked out. There are various ways to reach a satisfying conclusion. You might actually achieve the goal. More subtly, you might explore the way you changed while pursuing it. Often, your own inner development provides more satisfaction than achieving the goal you were aiming toward.

Writing a memoir requires time and skill to knit these pieces into an artistic whole. And for many people, it takes years to complete a noteworthy book. Along the way, you acquire many skills. Whether you learned them in Creative Nonfiction classes or through less formal channels, by the end you will know how to turn facts into a story. And then, the skills are yours. Everything else you write will benefit from this ability to shape facts into a story.

Instead of a beginner who complains that you don't have an interesting life, you become a storyteller, to whom people turn when they want to learn what makes life interesting.