Everybody knows I love fiction, but I’m often hired to work on memoirs because a memoir needs a story arc—the same way fiction does. Sure, a memoir is autobiographical, but it’s … different. Autobiographies are usually linear and deal with a whole life from soup to nuts, while a memoir often deals with one aspect of that life—an interesting career or a dysfunctional family or a tragedy that changed life’s trajectory. It’s a reflection on an event or a circumstance or a time that will never come again—by the person closest to that event or circumstance or time. The best way for a memoir to be interesting is careful structure of the elements. A story arc.
But it takes more than that.
A lot of people who feel they have a story to tell start with their own lives. And that’s not a bad idea, but the first question I ask a potential memoirist is: Who is your audience? Who will want to read this? (Note: the answer is not “everyone.”) There are affinity groups for any topic, and this is where readers are found.
For example, Terri Irwin, widow of television personality Steve Irwin (who was Australian), published a memoir, Steve and Me, a year after her husband’s untimely death. I imagine her readers were drawn from fans of Irwin’s television series The Crocodile Hunter, from lovers of wildlife, from those interested in environmentalism, from Australians. I imagine the first group (fans of the show) was the largest.
And it takes more than that too.
As I’ve said before, in order to be saleable your memoir needs to have a twist or a hook that makes it different. Surviving cancer isn’t enough. Being famous and surviving cancer (or dying tragically, far too soon), now, that’s another story. If Steve Irwin had not been a celebrity, I’m not so sure Terri would have found a publisher. Fame is a hook.
There are other hooks, of course. But think about it. Who’s going to read your story about your life as a single mom? Other single moms? I gotta tell ya, I was a single mom, and I don’t need to read about it; I lived it. But perhaps if you moved your young family to Paris and learned to speak French together … or you started a company so you could afford a private school for your child and it was a huge success … or you moved your little Christian family into a neighborhood that was primarily Orthodox Jewish families (the author of this book wasn’t a single mom but the concept is still intriguing) … those are twists that get attention. See?
If you’re thinking about writing a memoir, there’s a lot to consider. One of the first things you should do, too, is read other memoirs; you’ll see how it’s done, and you’ll learn about storytelling. Here’s a list (categorized, somewhat) I’ve enjoyed—start here.
Families, Odd and Otherwise:
All of These People / Fergal Keane
Angela’s Ashes / Frank McCourt
Breaking Apart / Wendy Swallow
Girl Named Zippy, A / Haven Kimmel
Glass Castle, The / Jeanette Walls
Liar’s Club, The / Mary Karr
Running With Scissors / Augusten Burroughs
Basketball Diaries, The / Jim Carroll
It Takes a Worried Man / Brendan Halpin
Lucky / Alice Sebold
Swimming the Channel / Sally Friedman
Whole New Life, A / Reynolds Price
Widow’s Walk, A / Marian Fontana
Fish Out of Water:
Almost French / Sarah Turnbull
Ciao America / Beppe Severgnini
How Starbucks Saved My Life / Michael Gates Gill
Paris to the Moon / Adam Gopnik
Under the Tuscan Sun / Frances Mayes
Blood, Bones, and Butter / Gabrielle Hamilton
Irish Way, The / Robert Emmett Ginna
Kitchen Confidential / Anthony Bourdain
Piano Lessons / Noah Adams
Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! / Richard Feynman
Word Freak / Stefan Fatsis
Another World, Different from Yours:
Leaving the Saints / Martha Beck
McCarthy’s Bar / Pete McCarthy
Water Is Wide, The / Pat Conroy
Woman Warrior, The / Maxine Hong Kingston
Triumph Over Adversity:
Are You Somebody? / Nuala O’Faolain
Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The / Jean-Dominique Bauby
Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, A / Dave Eggers
It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples / Bill Cullen
Loyalties / Carl Bernstein
Reading Lolita in Tehran / Azar Nafisi
Soul on Ice / Eldridge Cleaver
Wild Swans / Jung Chang
Eat Pray Love / Elizabeth Gilbert
Film Club, The / David Gilmour
My Losing Season / Pat Conroy
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek / Annie Dillard
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”