Looking for the Story in Your Memoir

Writing a memoir is more than regurgitating everything you can remember about your life. In fact, regurgitation is sure to result in a memoirbig mess, a whole lot of words tossed all over the place. Unless you are such a well-known person that readers are interested when you sneeze because you have developed allergies or walk to the corner store for pickles or check THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS out of the library, you have to organize your remembrances into some story or series of stories that readers can care about.

Some memoirs are so compellingly written that they are worth reading just for the way the author uses language. Mary Karr, who wrote LIARS’ CLUB, is in this category. She is a poet, and her use of language is just exquisite. Karr also knows how to tell a story. Her book is a series of entertaining short stories about her family. If you go this route, the stories have to be really entertaining, and each one has to be a whole. Let go of the idea that you are going to tell EVERYTHING that ever happened to you. And if you find yourself dribbling between stories, stop it.

Another way to write a successful memoir is to look for the story that your life is an example of. A number of years back, one of our clients, Carol Cline Schultz wrote CROSSING THE VOID, her memoir of an aphasic stroke that completely robbed her of words. She could not speak, read, or write. Her book is the story of how she painstakingly taught herself to do all those things again. She had to figure it out; there wasn’t an expert she could go to who could simply teach her to talk again. So how she did it, her story, is of interest to readers, many of them in the speech pathology field.

Yet another approach to writing a successful memoir is to put your life into a greater context of time and/or place. In other words, use your story to tell the way it was in a particular time and place. A recent client did this very well in his yet-to-be-published memoir, CONEY ISLAND DAYS. With his permission, here is an excerpt from Richard Pepitone’s book. Notice how he starts with the world around him and brings it back to his own life.

The year was 1944, and I went to all the theaters in downtown Brooklyn: the Brooklyn Fox on the Flatbush Avenue Extension off of DeKalb Avenue; the Brooklyn Paramount at the corner of Fulton Street and DeKalb Avenue; and the RKO Albee up the street from the Paramount. The Strand, the Majestic, and the RKO Orpheum were all nestled together on Fulton Street. The Orpheum was the only theater of its kind in Brooklyn, leftover from the old vaudeville days. Most of the performers were old-timers and had been doing their acts since long before I was born. Some had been successful at one time, but had lost their appeal to the fickle public and changing times; many were just lost along the wayside. Other than my father playing instruments in the living room, it was the only live entertainment I’d ever known. For me, a stage full of people who wanted to reach me, delight me, and make me laugh, and an audience that wanted to share the experience with me, was a world away—away from arguing parents who weren’t concerned about my comings and goings, schoolteachers who held me in contempt, and a neighborhood of bullies.

 The market for memoirs is over saturated; they are tough sell. So it really is imperative to find the story in your life that will appeal to readers.