MEMOIR: How I Read, Write and Use It

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The 9 Best Books on Writing Memoir | Penguin Random House

Paul Kalanithi didn't set out to become a writer — in fact, he was an M. After switching from doctor to patient, he set out to write this memoir to examine what makes life worth living. Not only did she survive, she went on to publish her memoir and become one of the most leading voices for change, and a symbol of how one person can change the world.

Mindy Kaling deserves credit for always living life on her own terms, and her book offers some of her keen observations about life that helped her get to where she is. Novak, He's Her Daughter's Godfather. Yet somehow, the story isn't maudlin, and Burroughs manages to walk that fine line of being brutally honest about his upbringing, without losing sight of the humor in his situation. However , great stories are not the point — and frankly, neither is the memoirist you.

But memoirs by nobodies succeed all the time — and for one reason: they resonate with readers because readers identify with truth. Truth, even hard, gritty, painful truth, bears transferrable principles. Memoirs full of such relatable candor attract readers, and readers are what publishers want. An astute agent or acquisitions editor can predict how relatable a memoir will be and take a chance on one from an unpublished unknown. Agents and editors tell me they love to discover such gems — the same way they love discovering the next great novelist.

It may seem counterintuitive to think reader-first while writing in the first-person about yourself. Sorry, but nobody cares except those who already love you. Whether they admit it or not, readers care most about their own lives. The more of that you offer, the more successful your book will be. Think transferable principles in a story well told. All people, regardless of age, ethnicity, location, and social status, share certain felt needs: food, shelter, and love.

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They fear abandonment, loneliness, and the loss of loved ones. Regardless your theme, if it touches on any of those wants and fears, readers will identify. I can read the memoir of someone of my opposite gender, for whom English is not her first language, of a different race and religion, who lives halfway around the world from me — and if she tells the story of her love for her child or grandchild, it reaches my core. Many writers tell me they fear their theme has been covered many times by many other memoirists.

Write on! Trust your narrative to do the work of conveying your message. Let your experiences and how they impacted you make their own points, and trust the reader to get it. Beat him over the head with your theme and you run him off. You can avoid being preachy by using what I call the Come Alongside Method. Give him credit.

So feature anecdotes from your life that support your theme, regardless how painful it is to resurrect the memories. The more introspective and vulnerable you are, the more effective will be your memoir. My father was a drunk who abused my mother and me. I was scared to death every time I heard him come in late at night.

As soon as I heard the gravel crunch beneath the tires and the car door open and shut, I dove under my bed. I could tell by his footsteps whether Dad was sober and tired or loaded and looking for a fight. I prayed God would magically make me big enough to jump between him and my mom, because she was always his first target…. Worry less about chronology than theme. Tell whatever anecdote fits your point for each chapter, regardless where they fall on the calendar.

Just make the details clear so the reader knows where you are in the story. You might begin with the most significant memory of your life, even from childhood. As in a novel, how the protagonist in this case, you grows is critical to a successful story.

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Your memoir should make clear the difference between who you are today and who you once were. This kind of book is intended for a wide readership and is more likely to be picked up by a traditional publisher. Or are you writing a legacy memoir? Intended for a more limited audience, legacy books help authors recall and cement a certain time in their lives — or to leave behind important stories and lessons for their descendants.

From there, you can figure out how to achieve that goal. If you want to sell your memoir to a traditional publisher, bear in mind that you will have to, at some point, submit a book proposal. Some authors choose to work with a ghostwriter to write their book proposal, even if they end up writing the manuscript themselves. This may be a good middle ground option you wish to consider. For more advice, read our guide to writing an effective book proposal. Take a lead from authors like award-winning ghostwriter Sharon Barrett.

That is, get under the skin of your subject: you. A memoir is like a diamond necklace: before you can set the stone and craft the chain, you have to extract the ore and refine it.

The 9 Best Books on Writing Memoir

As Barrett suggests, you should treat yourself as an interview subject and ask yourself questions that can trigger stories that may have slipped beneath the surface. One of the realities we have to face when writing our own story is that memory is largely unreliable, according to Heather Ebert. For Carolyn Jourdan , an author and ghostwriter of multiple bestselling books, the message is vital. Your story may have several themes, but consider what you want the overarching point to be.

On a thematic level, however, it deals with questions of faith as the author grapples with the idea of a God who would allow such horrors to take place. But through your research and interviews, you may begin to find that certain lessons or ideas keep popping up throughout your life. With your interview answers in hand, you will likely have too many stories to pick from. Which ones should you prioritize, and which ones should take a back seat? When were you the most afraid, confused, euphoric, etc?

Those are the moments when you see the true character of a person emerge. Once you have your list of high-emotion moments picked out, you can see how to best use them to tell your overarching story and reinforce your message and themes. Eschewing strict chronology, many memoirs chose to open with a story from the middle or end of the narrative. In fact, keep adjectives and adverbs to a minimum, making the nouns and verbs do the heavy lifting. Keep detailed information such as dates and times to a minimum unless crucial to the story. Take a lead from your favorite writers fiction or otherwise and see how they use narration and dialogue to play out their scenes. With these steps in mind, you will hopefully have enough inspiration to work your way through a first draft of your memoir.

As with any creative endeavor, writing a book about yourself comes with its own unique pitfalls. In this section, we'll look at a few of the most common mistakes. Readers expect honesty and candor. If you jump about too much you will forget what you have already done and start repeating yourself.

You can always change the chronology at the editing stage. Flashbacks and flash-forwards can be used to add interest. For more advice, check out our guide to outlining a memoir. At some point, you might want to share a draft with a close friend or family member. Their feedback can be priceless, as they might remember events differently to how you've portrayed them in your book.