“Wild” by Cheryl Strayed: one of the best memoirs I’ve read in recent years.

“Wild” by Cheryl Strayed: one of the best memoirs I’ve read in recent years.

by Hugh Gilmore

In the world of writing, the word “memoir” used to be reserved for autobiographies or reminiscences written by someone of notable achievement. Movie stars, for example, or great statesmen like Winston Churchill. Unlike an actual autobiography, which usually is meant to encompass someone’s entire life, a memoir gives the reader a view of someone’s life from within his or her life. It can encompass a wide range or a very small slice of that life. It is almost always written in first person.

Nowadays the word memoir is not used so restrictively. Any person who chooses to write about some or all of his life may say they are writing a memoir. The sticky part comes if you pluralize the idea and say, “I am writing my memoirs.” That phrase, unless used by someone famous, comes across as pretentious. It’s been incorporated into so many comedy bits it simply can’t be said without sounding weird.

So stick to the singular and say, “I’m writing a memoir.” There’s no word more suitable. And, in fact, it has become an acceptable contemporary genre of non-fiction writing. You don’t have to be famous to write a memoir. There are memoir sections in every bookstore now. There are memoir-writing workshops offered by nearly every institution that offers writing courses.

If you decide you want to write something along these lines, it’s very important that you get a very clear idea before you start of who your untended readers might be. If the book is simply meant to be a family record and the audience will consist primarily of family and friends, you are fairly free to write it in any style you choose. Most people organize their books chronologically, but others simply write down remembered events as they recur to them, “Random Reminiscences”-style.

If people have told you seem to have lived an interesting life, and “you should write a book about your experiences,” you still have to decide who the audience for that book would be. Exciting stories from wartime, adopting ten children, overcoming addiction, quitting a street gang, being married five times, growing up in a little-known part of the world, living an unusual life style, eye-witnessing an historical event, playing for a winning sports team, going from rags to riches, or vice-versa, all speak of unusual biographical events that others might want to read about.

Those kinds of stories are certainly daily feature stories reported on TV and in the press. If similar events occurred in your life, and you write a book describing them, you’d be writing it mostly for strangers, not family, and you’d have to write the book more carefully than the private press author of a “The Story of my Life” book would have to do. Strangers will want to hear your story, but only if it’s told well. After all, you’re expecting them to pay money for the right to be entertained, wowed, or moved by your words.

What does “told well” mean here? It means proper grammar and punctuation, of course, but that issue is so very much assumed in a professional book it doesn’t need further explanation. “Told well” here means you figure out a way to tell your story for maximum effect. Whether you want your audience to laugh, cry, be mystified, or all of those reactions and more, you’ve got to structure your story so it has that effect on them. In short, you must learn to create scenes.

A practical way of thinking about a scene is this: a person has a goal, but an obstacle or conflict gets in the way, causing tension, then the obstacle is overcome, releasing the tension. Even if a memoir has one overriding conflict that is present from Page One, (“How I escaped a POW camp”; “How I broke away from an abusive spouse”), it still needs to be thought of as a series of linked scenes. And each of those scenes needs to provide a mini-tension/mini-release (e.g. “POW,” Chap 3: finding a digging tool, almost having it confiscated; “Spouse,” Ch. 6: Finding a friend who could help you find a battered-woman shelter). Each scene has to get the full respect it deserves and not be taken for granted as you rush for the finish line. People want to be moved – the more often the better – for the final effect your book will have on them.

There is another kind of memoir that has achieved great popularity in recent years. It’s a branch of the “My Life Story” genre, but it restricts itself to a theme, usually “How I overcame X to become a happier/more fulfilled/at peace person.” Sometimes that X is another person, but lately the X, or antagonist, has been that person herself.

We’ll take that up in the next installment of this series, where the tricky job of organizing your memoir by themes will be described.