Memoir and Story

One of the common problems I see in writing workshops is the memoir writer who is struggling to tell his story. I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I recognize it, and I think that’s important.

Fiction writers in particular can often have some distance from their story. For example, the princess that is using her magical amulet to force her step-brother from the throne is a great story, but is not an issue most of us have to deal with on a daily basis.

By contrast, the memoir writer will often be confronted by other members of the workshop about his writing, and throw up his hands, saying, “but that’s what happened!”

The point is this: writing is a craft, and you’ve got to be able to use all of your characters to great effect. You’ve got to allow them to make terrible choices, step into peril, fail to see important details. All of the people in the memoir, including the narrator, are characters. And if you don’t treat them that way, it is going to be a much less satisfying experience for the reader.

Put another way, and bluntly, nobody really cares about you. I mean, unless you are president of a large country, why should I read about you? You’ve had struggles? I’ve had struggles. So what?

What people want is a story. They want to be taken on a journey. So the memoir writer sometimes has a bigger challenge than other writers. For starters, this may be one of their first serious attempts at writing. They haven’t yet perfected their craft. But now they have to try to develop their craft not with a princess, but with themselves, their mothers, their broken childhoods. It’s a lot harder to be objective about that.

I welcome advice from others who have successfully navigated this labyrinth. I don’t know the answer, but I think that recognizing the challenge is an important first step.

One Reply to “Memoir and Story”

  1. Hi Tyler,
    I agree that the challenge is always to interest the reader, not just to tell what happened, but I also think that most people can write about “real life” much more effectively than they can write fiction, because the plot and details already exist. If a writer starts not with “what happened” but why it matters, and then works back to a narrative that illustrates why it matters, a memoir is more likely to be worth reading. I know you are talking about writing at a different level, but this technique seems to work even with freshman composition students. I remind them they are writers, not reporters.

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