In my work as a freelance editor, I’ve worked with many writers who are eager to publish their memoirs. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that even people with the most fascinating life stories can find themselves in over their heads when they attempt to write them down. It turns out life is big and sprawling and really, really long (who knew?).
It’s easy to get overwhelmed or even paralyzed when faced with the challenge of transforming your life into a compelling story that other people will want to read. Here are some questions to ask yourself before you find yourself four hundred pages deep.
1. What period of your life will this memoir cover?
Will it start with your earliest memory and progress right through to the present, or will it focus on one specific period of your life—say, the summer you toured with the Rolling Stones?
Many beginning memoirists make the mistake of assuming they want to write about their whole lives, which can quickly become overwhelming. Choosing to focus on either one or several significant periods in your life can be both more manageable to write and more gripping to read.
Before you start writing, make a list of events and life-periods (for example, the college years) that you really, really want to write about. Then start with those, instead of burning yourself and your readers out by writing about everything that happened before and after.
2. What’s your angle?
Some successful memoirs, like Jeanette Walls’ Glass Castles, cover a wide range of events in the author’s childhood or lifetime. Others, like Chelsea Handler’s My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands or Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother focus on a certain angle: one-night stands in Handler’s case, and parenting in Chua’s.
Choosing an angle for your memoir can be a fantastic way to get the ball rolling, providing you with an instant structure for your story. Giving your memoir the constraint of an angle makes it much easier to decide what to put in and what to leave out, and gives your readers an addictive hook to latch onto—which date will she go on next? Memoirs with strong angles like My Horizontal Life and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother also tend to be more controversial than other memoirs, because the author is taking a stand on a certain issue or societal norm.
3. How much of your memoir will be about you?
This might seem like a dumb question—after all, it’s called a memoir for a reason—but it’s an important one to think about before you start. Some of the best memoirs say as much about a certain time, place, or cultural moment as they do about the author’s own life, like Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.
When you make a list of the life events you want to include in your memoir, think also about the events that were happening in the wider world. What was happening in the background of your life? What was the big news—the triumphs, disasters, wars, sports victories, and musical crazes? What was the hot new technology? Were you part of an identifiable tribe that was causing a stir at the time (like punks or hippies) or were you in a different world altogether?
Some memoirs contain almost no mention of events and movements outside the author’s life. Others focus almost exclusively on outside events, with the author’s personal life taking up a relatively minor part of the story. Which balance you decide to strike in your memoir depends entirely on which story you’re most interested in telling: your own, or that of a cultural or historical moment that fascinates you.
In my next post, I’ll discuss three more questions every aspiring memoirist should consider before setting pen to paper.