When is a memoir by a celebrity not a celebrity memoir?

By Jerry Waxler

Andre Agassi was one of the greatest tennis players of all time, and he was married to supermodel Brooke Shields. So it would be natural to expect his memoir, “Open,” to be just another celebrity memoir, taking a free ride on his household name. But the book was not a vapid look at the privileged life of a star. Instead the tennis player and his ghost-writer J.R. Moehringer, author of the memoir “Tender Bar,” converted a lifetime into a good story, filled with emotional insight.

The memoir had much in common with a good novel. It developed characters, built suspense and guided me through the protagonist’s emotional experience. The author found the prize all aspiring memoirists seek. Like a quest for the holy grail, he located the organizing principle that allowed him to collect his experiences into a readable whole.

Each of us must describe our own unique path, but after reading more than a hundred memoirs, I find that memoirs are driven by fundamental principles. Like any story, memoirs require  dramatic tension and story arc. But many people, especially those who fear their lives are not important enough to write about, make the mistake of thinking that all the action takes place on the outside, with flashy characters and big scenes.

I find that memorable memoirs use the external events as a shell. The heart of the story takes place on a more interior level. When I read a memoir, I want to gain a deeper understanding of what drove the protagonist through those events. What inner flaws made the journey more difficult and how did the author overcome those inner obstacles?  “Open” is a world-class example of the author’s inner journey, making the book not only a good read but also an instructive one, offering valuable insights into what makes a memoir tick.

This is the first part of a multi-part review of Andre Agassi’s “Open.” In the next entry I will pick apart the elements and suggest ways “Open” can help you write your own memoir.

More memoir writing resources

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