What makes a good memoir? Does your life qualify?

In the May 12th issue of the “New York Review of Books,” memoir reviewer and memoirist Ian Frazier predicts an onslaught of personal stories:

“Seventy-six million baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Many of us own computers, and we find ourselves fascinating.”

Oh, goody. In the same issue of the NYR, short story writer Lorrie Moore calls memoirs a “cultural condition” and asks a series of questions that might be considered pre-requisites for penning a memoir. They include:

Are you connected to a fascinating and underexplored chapter in history in any manner whatever? Are you a professional story teller with a beautiful prose style and some autobiography begging for reportage? Are you a trenchant thinker with incisive analytical powers? Do you have a social cause you would like to advocate strenuously? And if none of the above, are you Brigitte Bardot?”

Moore is being largely facetious. As she obviously knows, today’s memoirs are very often concocted of flimsier stuff. So, in a more practical way, the question is worth asking: what makes a good memoir?

1) Frazier, whose TRAVELS IN SIBERIA was published last year, says that the memoir reader is going to be asking, why should I care – and the writer needs to address that question right away. That is probably a good jumping off point. Why should the reader care about your story?
2) We have edited lots of memoirs and have noticed that personal stories are more interesting when they are not so much personal but about other people as well. In other words, I, I, I is to be avoided. Boring, and it makes the writer look boorish.
3) Possessing information that the reader might be interested in learning is a good reason to write a memoir. We are currently editing a Hollywood memoir that is lots of fun because we are learning about an aspect of film making that we knew nothing about.
4) Family secrets make great memoirs. In fact, if there is a memoir formula, this is it. Find the secret in your family, investigate and write a memoir. Another of our clients was inexplicably deserted by his father at an early age. Later in life, he learns why. He has a built-in story. Similarly, a memoirist interviewed on NPR this weekend discovered in his twenties that his grandfather was a Nazi. Voila, memoir!
5) Memoirs can be advocacy pieces. Is your personal story a jumping off place for a wider examination of a subject? Has it given you a point of view you would like to express and feel others might benefit from?

If your personal story is unremarkable – and many of ours are – there are lots of other kinds of books to write. And, if Frazier is right about the coming tide, there may be a much better market for them.