On Writing Memoirs: Short Reflection #1

I love a good memoir.

Memoirs run a wide gamut. They can be, on one end, very platform-based books–which means that the person who is writing them, either himself/herself or with the support of a talented ghost writer, has a┬ásignificant marketing powerhouse to back them. The nature of this marketing powerhouse depends entirely on the type of figure we are discussing, but can involve the institutions to which they are affiliated and the public value of their name, developed over time, with money, public exposure, wide-scale impact made through programming or otherwise, etc.

Think Brittney Spears and Michelle Obama-esque figures.

On the entirely opposite end, memoirs can be books with a very high concept–written by an individual without a platform, but are still compelling in some kind of essential ‘hook.’ The story organically captivates the hearts of readers, especially in the realm of particular forms of experience. These experiences can be deeply personal, or professional, or somewhere in between (i.e., ‘how an addict heals from addiction,’ ‘how an orphaned girl discovers her family,’ or ‘how a businesswoman’s career takes off under impossible circumstances’).

In either case, the best memoirs operate from within something like a novel’s structure: because you are not telling about a subject but about a life, and are thus telling a story, for no life can be explained without the story of the life, there needs to be an organic arc that arises from within the memoir’s premise or concept. An organic start, middle, end; an organic tension or problem or arc-in-experience .

Non-platform-based memoirs need tight work at the structural level, to tighten and to frame the individual chapters and scenes that operate along the story’s “arc”–to not just tell a super linear/horizontal series of events, that reads more like a timeline than it does a story, but something more vertical in its nature. This might mean that you the actual manuscript for the memoir begins in the heart of the story, the heart of the experience, and in working forward, works to integrate the background and history of the start in this setting in layers.

In may seem silly, but I think it’s a requirement for writers of memoir to read literary agent Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel (and/or anything else that he’s written, especially with an eye toward the tools he gives to teach structure and craft).

It should be a relatively easy book to read and apply–where memoirs are not writing something fiction, they already have the key story elements: the main characters, and the setting. They should always work to identify what is the sort of plot-like mechanism in this (as this is what will drive the love of the memoir–readers’ investment in the writer, and the story, and the stakes, and the nature of what the writer discovers and learns and has to share), as well as build out scenes to have a stronger beginning, middle, and end around their key ‘tension points’ and ‘focal points.’

Besides this, I think it’s important to read memoirs, and to answer these questions: How is the story structured? How are the scenes structured? What does the writer do in each individual scene? Where do they start and end? What keeps your interest? When is essential historical information introduced, and how does a plot-like or tension-related movement develop from within the early parts of the story? How much is related to voice–how the writer speaks, in telling the story–and how much is related to concrete external events or triggers that shape what happens?

I am actively open to memoirs, and love them, and entrust this as round #1–over what I hope will be many rounds–of some thoughts on memoir-writing. I did not have the opportunity to represent one in my first round as an agent, and hope to discover something that I respond to and believe in this time around.