Writing about your life can be fun, illuminating and cathartic.
Memoir writing is really popular right now. Everyone seems to want to revisit their past and write the story of their life: This is me.
The first thing I always ask anyone thinking about writing a memoir is: Who are you writing it for?
There are three possible answers to this question, each of them valid: for myself, for my family, for anyone who’s interested.
If you’re writing it for yourself you can include anything and everything you want. There’s no reader to please or engage with. It’s your story, told exactly how you want to tell it. Writing for yourself like this can be fun, illuminating, emotionally-charged, sad and cathartic – all at once.
If you’re writing it to give to family members, you can still include anything you want to but you will need to consider how your describe and present the people you’re discussing. A memoir is never just about you. It’s also about everyone you grew up with, your friends, the people you loved and fell out with. It’s about tricky family members and ex-partners, sensitive children and siblings who probably see your shared childhood differently. To save a lot of hurt feelings, if you want your family members to read your memoir, focus on the positive.
A memoir intended for public consumption is an entirely different book. Now, you’re having to engage with a reader and hold their interest. We’ve all had adventures and travelled and fallen in love and made mistakes, and so before you start writing you need to be able to answer the following question: Why would a stranger be interested in your life?
Is it because you’ve managed to survive an unhappy childhood, a debilitating illness or a terrible marriage? Are you writing your memoir to help other people, to show them they are not alone? That they can take heart or learn from your experiences?
Is it because you’ve led an extraordinary life? Or because your life has been filled with misadventures and near misses? Has your life been a series of funny or bizarre events? Do you want to entertain people with your unique story? Do you want to make people laugh?
Once you’ve decided your life (or a part of your life) would be interesting to other readers, then it’s time to figure out how you’re going to write your memoir. One way is chronologically: Where you were born. Your school days and sports days. Your best friends, first love, first job and house and so on, right up to where you are today. This approach is the simplest way to write about your life, although it’s not always the best or most interesting.
You could approach it by focusing on one period of your life: Your unusual childhood or the funny mistakes you made when dating in your twenties. Or you might choose to focus on a theme or subject such as your favourite books, the dogs in your life, your string of terrible jobs, the records you’ve bought, the friends you’ve made, the holidays you’ve taken and tell your story that way. You can write this themed approach chronologically or skip back and forth across the decades, depending on what you want to share.
And ‘what you want to share’ is really critical in memoirs. You don’t need to include everything. Your memoir is you curating your life and focusing on the best, worst or most interesting parts of it. You can skip the five years when you were bored at school or when you got promoted earlier than you’d expected. You can completely ignore all the perfectly fine holidays you’ve had and write a gripping chapter on the one solo trip you made to Bali where everything went wrong. Be very selective. Your life could fill hundreds of books. You’re writing just one.
For more information on my memoir classes, please contact me.