Should You Tell Your Story?
Oct 20, 2014
Readers gobble up the memoir genre; because the stories are (presumably) real and lived, they possess greater immediacy than fiction and more easily resonate with readers emotionally and intellectually. We love to see into the lives of others—either to experience some satisfying schadenfreude or the peace of knowing we are not alone, or even to see how far humanity is able/willing to go, whether in depravity or decency. And yet, the memoir is among the hardest genres to actually succeed at as an author. Not every story needs to be told, but, more importantly, the author may not always be the right person to tell it. Determining whether you should even write your story can be difficult. So here are a few tips to consider before writing (or even after you start) to make sure you have a manuscript worthy of your life and truly valuable to those who read it.
Write a memoir, not an autobiography.
In the growing market of autobiographical writing, there has been a confusion of genres. An autobiography tells the history of your life—it is expansive and all encompassing, and you only ever write one. When written by people who view their very existence to be relevant and “important,” autobiographies can easily become nebulous and rambling.
In contrast, a memoir focuses on a specific event or story in your life—it is contained and can allow for a more experimental structure. With less story to tell, memoirs allow you to dig more deeply into details and deal more readily with why the book and story matter. Plus, you can write hundreds of memoirs. Just look at David Sedaris and his endless collections of life stories.
Remember: Memoirs do not have to be heavy.
It is okay to have a “normal” life or to write on a common event, just make sure you have a reason for telling your story. It is okay to be funny or laugh at your past. Not every memoir needs to be about the terrifying or painful or unique. A harrowing and fascinating story can fail as a book because the author does not know how to tell the story or fails to say anything about it beyond its occurrence.
Have something to say about the story.
As long as you have something to say, you will have a story worth telling (heavy or not). However, that also means you have to bring more than affecting moments or humorous anecdotes; your memoir has to say something larger than the individual story—it has to be about something. Before writing, ask yourself, “Why tell my story? What value does it bring to my reader?” If you cannot answer those questions with something bigger than “It is an interesting story,” you may not be ready to write this particular story. Having a unique life story does not make it worth telling. What matters in a memoir (or any book really) is that the story is told with a unique perspective and that the author has an underlying message or lesson that transcends the simple events of the story.
Never just send words into the ether and hope the reader will get what you are trying to say. If memoirs should always be about something bigger, and they should, then that requires you to look critically at your life. Examine your life and how you remember it, then ask, “Why do I remember it that way? What did that moment do to me? Why have I avoided confronting that person for what they did? Why have I denied what I did?” By asking these questions and others, you will push your story from the personal toward the universal. How something occurred is always less important than the examination of why it happened and what effect it had.
Be utterly honest.
Before ever deciding to write about your life, you have to be willing to tell it all. If you want to write about your childhood but do not want to possibly hurt your family’s feelings, then your childhood is not something you are ready to write on. If you are still friends with an old love and want to avoid saying anything about the relationship, then a memoir might not be your mode of expression for that particular story. To write about your life means sharing it openly, honestly, and directly. Your reader will sniff out any hedging or less-than-honest storytelling. As soon as your readers suspect that they might not be getting the truth, you have lost them and their trust. So either be willing to open up your life or find a story you are ready to tell fully.