by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
Before a reader picks up your memoir, they have formed a mental image of what lies inside. The title is only one of the bits of information they consider. The cover image might contribute, although many excellent books have plain covers. Readers also consider the subtitle, the blurb, the book’s website, the supportive quotes on the back of the book or on the bookseller’s page, and they may even watch the video trailer.
As an aspiring memoir writer, these outward facing flourishes might seem impossible to imagine. The books you buy appear to be far more polished than yours, which still seems somewhat vague. You know you want to write your story, and hope that someday it will be worth reading, but you don’t yet have a catchy blurb, and perhaps can’t yet even say what it’s “about.”
The important thing to remember when you compare yourself with published authors is not whether your life itself is more interesting than theirs. Keep in mind that by the time their book reaches the store, it has been through a journey, during which they and their publishers had plenty of time to refine their message. If you are just beginning the journey, naturally the end seems a long way off. Having said that, these authors had to start somewhere and so do you.
Even at the very start of your memoir-writing process, try to envision the way potential readers will view your work. The closer you get to actually publishing it, the more important this outward facing creative project becomes. Fortunately, we memoir writers are also readers, so to figure out the mind of a prospective reader, we can learn a lot from our own process of searching for a book.
To help you develop your message, look at the books you’ve been reading and summarize the message that grabbed you. For example,
— After scanning the title and blurb for David Bellavia’s House to House, I expected a heart-thumping account of urban fighting in Iraq, and that’s what I got.
— When I started Matthew Polly’s American Shaolin, I was curious about his transformation from an intellectual college boy to a student of martial arts in the Chinese temple made famous by the Kung Fu television series. It fulfilled my expectations.
Themes like this seem to spring naturally from the events themselves, but there are many memoirs that probably felt very mundane to the author when they first started. For example,
- My reason for reading Seven Wheelchairs wasn’t that Gary Presley had polio but rather to learn how he coped with that condition.
- Tim Elhajj’s Dope Fiend presented the climb of a young man from the quagmire of addiction back to competent adulthood.
- Firoozeh Dumas’ Funny in Farsi is about an immigrant Iranian in the U.S. I enjoyed accompanying her as she tried to develop a sense of American identity.
- When I picked up One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, a Marriage, and the Language of Healing by Diane Ackerman, I knew before I read the first page that it was about taking care of her husband after his stroke.
As you search for the compelling core of your own story, step away from the catchy blurb and think about what it would be like for an author to look back on a life in a wheelchair, or growing up in a minority culture, or taking care of a husband after his stroke, or recovering from addiction. “Who would ever want to read about me” seems like a natural first thought. Then, “But I really want to tell my story” is the compelling thought that took over in each of these cases and motivated the author to keep going.
At first, you might have a hard time imagining how to boil your own story down to such a catchy kernel. But it turns out that the kernel of your own memoir might be lurking beneath the surface, in the psychological drama that was taking place inside your mind and emotions. By searching through your dreams and setbacks, you discover the drama that was taking place on a psychological plane. Why did you behave that way? What made you do those things? How did you overcome the fears, self-doubts, and discouragement?
Revealing your interior life
Many memoirs develop the interior story and bring it out into the open. For example, Look Me in the Eye by John Robison is not noteworthy because of a specific set of circumstances, but rather because his experiences all took place within the mental context of undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. William Styron’s memoir Darkness Visible brought depression into the public view, and Kay Redfield’s Unquiet Mind did the same for Bipolar Disorder.
These special psychological states of mind go on for years or a whole life, but in fact, all of us have been thrown into dramatic and important states of mind at various times. For example, grieving can become an incredibly important journey filled with drama. Similarly, when a crisis occurs in our lives for any reason, we must dig for courage, and attempt to overcome fears and discouragement. Such states of mind are ordinary in the sense that they happen to everyone, and extraordinary in the sense that they push us to the tipping point between courage and despair. Such states are worth writing about:
In grieving, we must somehow reclaim our sense of poise in a world which is now missing one of its most important features. By reading memoirs of such experiences we can learn how the author coped and increase our empathy and understanding of that process.
- Robert Waxler’s Losing Jonathan, cowritten with his wife, chronicled the loss of the author’s son to a drug overdose, and the subsequent journey of grieving and healing.
- In Kate Brestrup’s Here if You Need Me, after losing her husband in a freak auto accident, the author had to go on a long journey to understand not only her loss, but the very meaning of life and death.
Adapting to Midlife or other major changes
When you grow older, you realize that your self-image needs to adapt to new realities. A similar self-examination can take place when diagnosed with cancer, or anything that causes you to reframe your sense of self.
- In My Ruby Slippers, Tracy Seeley is bounced out of her comfort-zone by a cancer diagnosis and goes looking for her roots in Kansas.
- In Queen of the Road, psychiatrist Doreen Orion turned fifty and with her husband went looking for her new identity on a road trip through the United States.
- In Accidental Lessons, David Berner realizes that his successful career as a broadcaster is no longer fulfilling. He quits and takes a job as a school teacher.
Of course there is more to every memoir than just the few facts on the cover. Sometimes the sheer beauty of excellent storytelling can turn what appears on the surface to be ordinary into an exquisite act of art. Theresa Weir’s memoir Orchard is about marrying a farmer and moving to a farm. On the surface these facts look stunningly ordinary. Inside, the author weaves these features into a beautiful, revealing glimpse into the heart of her individual life experience.
Write a blurb for your proposed memoir that would emphasize your search for psychological identity and wholeness. Did you want to achieve dignity, purpose, or courage? What obstacles did you need to overcome in order to achieve this goal? How did you grow? What lessons did you learn?
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Once again, you have touched upon such an important topic for anyone who is tackling writing a memoir- finding the core meaning of your story and being able to communicate that purpose in an engaging and succinct manner. I appreciate your specific examples gleaned from memoirs you have read. Thanks for this thought-provoking and excellent post. I’ll be sharing it all over!
Thanks for the comment, Kathleen, and thanks for any shares you care to make.
This is such a great subject, Jerry. It’s funny that even when you’ve been through the journey of becoming a published author, you still have so much to learn. I finished the proposal for one of my future books and it felt like I was starting all over again – because I am.