I’ve posted about this before and I do it again. The reason it’s on my mind is that I currently have a client—a phenomenal writer—who is dealing with this in his book. Here’s a quote from Writer’s Digest on the subject:
“An autobiography focuses on the chronology of the writer’s entire life while a memoir covers one specific aspect of the writer’s life. So, if I chose to write about my complete life up to this point—including growing up in Cincinnati, my time in New York, the few years I spent in Chicago and eventually landing at Writer’s Digest—I’d write an autobiography. If wrote a book about the winter of my sophomore year in high school where I got my tongue stuck to an icy pole, I’d write a memoir.”
The above points out something that is very simple and very key and yet what many new writers seem to somehow forget again and again, and again: A memoir is about ONE specific event. Now, let’s be clear; let’s clarify. That certainly and absolutely does not mean that we talk about that singular event and ONLY that event. We use back story and refer, of course, to prior life events that are directly or indirectly related to the said memoir.
But the point is, we focus on that one event. If the memoir is about your story of growing up poor in Idaho and deciding to live alone in the mountains for five years, then later becoming one of the top CEOs of Google somehow: You have to mainly focus on those specific years. Yes, you’re going to lightly comment on what mom and dad were like growing up. Yes, you’re going to mention your upbringing. But that’s NOT going to be your focus. Your focus is going to be the story you’re specifically discussing. If you find yourself talking about everything that happened in your life—from day one until now—you’re actually writing an autobiography. Unless you’re Wolf Blitzer or Bill Maher, most readers, sadly to say, won’t care enough about you to read. Sorry. Sad but true.
But lucky enough for the rest of us, there is a medium between a novel and an autobiography: It’s called memoir. But the unfortunate thing is, most of us don’t know how to write them.
Memoir should be written very much like a novel. Think story arc, plot, character arc, setting, driving desire, stakes, conflict, the whole deal. Everything that takes place in a novel should essentially be in your memoir, too. So, skip the intro, skip the boring “I was born in 1967…” and go directly to the actually STORY. Hook us on page one and don’t let the hell go. Start with an inciting incident, the whole nine yards, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda. You all know the drill. And yet so often this is ignored in order to tell a tale from birth until current times.
Here’s another quote: “Good memoir borrows from fiction, following the rule that the story is not as important as the way it’s told. In fiction, all the characters are literally nobodies, because none of them actually exist. Fiction writers use dialogue, description, scenes, and metaphors to make these nobodies feel like the most important people in the world to the reader. Similarly, memoirists adopt fictional techniques to elevate their own nobody status, and make their stories, whether about a trip around the world or a hike through the woods, feel as important as global affairs.” (From ‘Autobiography vs Memoir: The Changing Landscape of Recollective Writing,’ by Jennie Yabroff [‘Biographile,’ Random House, 2014])
The point above—again—is that memoir is written LIKE fiction, using similar techniques. Furthermore, memoir is an odd beast. It is considered nonfiction, it’s true. And in a way, it is. Anyone will tell you right off the bat: Of course memoir is nonfiction; it’s a ‘true’ account of the facts of your life. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find other notions of memoir.
As Stephen King famously said—yes, another King quote; I love the guy, what can I say?—“When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.”
There is a large element of truth to that quote. NO one, I don’t care who you are, can remember things exactly as they happened in their past 100%. Just simply isn’t possible. As I’ve brought up before, memoir is about ‘emotional truth.’ Sure, you try your best to get the facts right. A memoir MUST center around the planet that is ‘true’ life event/fact. But other than that—and doing your best to stay the course in terms of ‘what actually occurred’—you’re going to focus on that emotional truth. The main difference between autobiography, memoir, and fiction is: Autobiography tells the WHOLE story of your life, using much information and fact; memoir tells a specific story of your life that’s true but you’re using fictive techniques to tell emotional truth; and fiction is completely, for the most part, made up out of your imagination (obviously there are elements of truth in fiction).
Pretty simple. But again, it seems to be commonly misunderstood. For example: The Kiss, by Kathryn Harrison; Jarhead by Anthony Swofford; The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. In all three of these memoirs (all great by the way if you haven’t read them) the author focuses on ONE SPECIFIC time in their lives. With Harrison it’s her twenties having a secret love affair with her estranged father. With Swofford it’s the Gulf War. With Walls it’s her crazy and alcoholic father, leading her family around the country like poor lunatics. In Walls’s book she does go deeply into her early childhood to explain the present, and she flips back to current times at the beginning and at the end, but those times are only used to demonstrate the story therein being told.
So, the moral of the story, so to speak is, when writing memoir, be honest and tell the truth (we don’t need another James Frey, author of ‘A Million Little Pieces,’ which by the way, regardless of the truth, was a great book!) but also be aware of the fact that you’re only telling about one key moment or time in your life—not the whole thing—and that really, memoir rests on fictive techniques and emotional truth. Then come hire me to edit your memoir
“You said it. Let’s edit.”
I do developmental book editing. Right now I am—happily—booked solid until August. IF you want a free test edit now I can do that, but I’ll have to throw you in line for Aug. Cool with that? Have an adult novel (no sci-fi please) or memoir? Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.