It's Not (Only) about You: Writing a memoir that unites the universal and the particular
I love memoirs. I love reading them, and I also love editing them. There is something about helping authors to tell their own stories in a way that will deeply connect to readers that is uniquely satisfying. But even though the stories you tell in a memoir are already there for you to use (unlike in fiction, where you have to create them out of whole cloth), that doesn’t mean writing a memoir is easy. From the thousands of stories in your head, you have to choose the right ones, the ones that are perfectly suited to conveying your message. You have to provide readers with insight into what happened to you, into what it all means, in a way that illuminates the themes of your memoir.
Many new memoir writers struggle with taking what happened to them and turning it into something bigger, something that is universal enough that it will be interesting to readers who don’t already know them. I recently read a quote from memoir author and teacher Marion Roach Smith that I thought could be really useful in helping authors make this connection. Smith says:
“A memoir is not about you. It is about something and you are its illustration.”
I actually gave a little squeal of delight when I first read this, as it perfectly encapsulates this idea of using the personal to explore ideas and feelings that are common to us all. (And, yes, okay, editors can be a little weird. We squeal in delight at slightly different things than your average person.) Let’s dive more deeply together into what this quote means and how it affects how you write your memoir.
Obviously, your memoir is about you. By definition, a memoir is a narrative composed from personal experience. But a memoir is much more than just a description of the things that happened to you. If you just want to tell your life story, an autobiography is the appropriate medium, not a memoir. A memoir requires you to go a step further, to relate your experiences to a theme that readers can see at work in their own lives. Let’s look at specific examples to help illustrate this point.
1) You are writing a memoir that focuses on the loss of your mother at a young age and how this impacted you. The “something” the story is about is “living with and recovering from grief.” Your personal experience illustrates what this could look like.
2) You are writing a memoir that focuses on a serious medical diagnosis that you received and how you dealt with that. The “something” the story is about is “perseverance through difficulty” or perhaps “finding happiness in a new normal,” and your personal experience shows readers how this can be accomplished.
3) You are writing a memoir about how you went from being a couch potato to a successful triathlete in the course of year. The “something” the story is about is “reinventing yourself” or “achieving goals that seem impossible,” and your personal experiences are an example of how this can be achieved.
In all of these cases, the theme of the story—what it is about—is the backbone of the memoir, and your stories are what fleshes it out. You are telling readers what happened in your life, but you are doing it in service to something bigger. The memoir is about something universal, and your life stories demonstrate how this might look in the particular.
This doesn’t mean your personal stories aren’t important. While the themes that underlie a memoir are universal, it is your stories that are going to touch readers hearts in a way that allows them to recognize that universality. It is your stories that are going to inspire readers to reach for their goals or to find happiness in difficult circumstances.
So how does this affect how you write your memoir. Instead of just starting at point A and writing down your experiences until you get to point B, it can be helpful to think beforehand about what themes you want your memoir to address. What lessons did you learn through your experiences that you want to share with readers? How do you hope to change how readers see life through your memoir? If you’re not sure, try this exercise. Write several single sentence descriptions of what the book is about and then see how you can expand that into a possible theme. For example, if you are writing a memoir about your time in rehab and the year that followed, you might write:
1) “It’s about overcoming addiction and starting my life over.”
2) “It’s about finding a new career after getting out of rehab.”
3) “It’s about figuring out who my friends really are.”
Now look for the commonalities in those statement. They all talk about figuring out how to be you—how to live, where to work, who to allow into your life—during and after this difficult time. This might lead you to a realization that the theme of the book is about finding your true self through the overcoming of adversity. Once you know that, you can pick the specific stories from that time that best illustrate this theme. Instead of just relaying what happened, you are intentionally choosing the events that exemplify this theme.
If you allow your memoir to do more than just tell readers about your life, it can unite the universal and the particular in a way that inspires, teaches, and moves readers. Find the common themes in your experiences and then tell the story only you can tell to guide readers to a better understanding of life. And if you'd like help making this happen, get in touch. I'd love to work with you on your memoir!