I never thought I would write a memoir. For the most part, I find reading memoirs tedious as writers tend to include too many details and tell their story in a linear way. Many memoirists also seem to have barbs attached to their pens.
The reason why Eat, Pray, Love enjoyed success wasn’t because Liz Gilbert struck out to get revenge on her former husband or the lifestyle she was supposed to embrace. The memoir received worldwide attention because the author stripped herself bare while allowing raw, yet universal emotions to splatter on to the pages of her book. Gilbert also chose a non-linear structure for her memoir, even though her travelogue traveled from Italy, then India, and finally, Bali. Gilbert also tells her story in a self-effacing, humorous, and relatable voice–at least familiar to middle-class American women of a certain age.
But when I was wading through manuscripts on the defunct Authonomy website years ago, most of the memorists made several mistakes in my opinion. They used too many passive verbs, they regurgitated their lifestory instead of focusing on a slice of life, and they chose macabre topics without providing some brighter moments or comic relief. Some authors would have been better off hiring a ghost writer since their writing skills were rudimentary or told in a second language. And yet, an author learns a lot by critiquing other people’s work while also reading the top memoirs on the charts.
The main question for me revolves around baring one’s soul. How many sensitive topics or secrets do I reveal in my work? And am I revealing these secrets to tell a universal story or am I seeking revenge on a subconscious level? It helps to spend time in therapy while writing material with suffering rooted in childhood situations, as is the case with my memoir, Woman Sleeping on a Couch. And the good news is that the writing process proved cathartic and I did bring up these deeper issues during therapy sessions. But I still ask myself if my story is universal or just too painful to share with others?
Determine whether or not you’re shooting from the hip or if sharing your story has the power to heal others.
- Will telling your story divide a family or cause a rift with relatives?
- Will your story withstand the scrutiny of critics (both professional and personal)?
- Can you write your story in an entertaining manner where you laugh at yourself and reveal your vulnerabilities (shadows and projections)?
- Do you take responsibility for your end of the story or act like a victim?
- Do you discern the difference between events that serve the story and events that serve the ego?
- Will telling your story land you in legal hot water or liberate you?
- Does your story share an arc with fiction? Do you have a strong beginning, middle and resolution or is your story open-ended?
Writing memoirs rubs the conscious raw. Writing memoirs strips the soul bare. And not everyone wants to read about people’s personal history unless it strikes a common thread. And the most popular memoirs revolve around travel, food, love/romance, and animals. If you take a more universal approach by anchoring your story in one of those themes, you have a greater chance of hitting the literary jackpot.
My sister and I used to have a conversation where she believed that everyone has an interesting story to tell. But face it, not everyone is a storyteller. And while it’s enjoyable to sit with friends, colleauges, and family members as they spin nostalgic and revealing yarns, a memoir stretches those yarns to 300 pages, which causes some yarns to snap and break.
However, if a story has a strong beginning, middle, and end with an overarching universal theme, then it is worth telling. Just be willing to rewite the “truth” through several drafts. And then depending on the material in the story, muster the courage to weather any storms that come from secrets and situations contained in the memoir. Once we let the worms out of the can, it’s too late to put a lid on it.
I’m an author and astrologer who provides coaching for creative professionals. Go to Whole Astrology to sign up for a session.