Updated: Nov 8
Through my business, Strike The Write Tone, I have chosen to work exclusively with nonfiction. But my focus, my specialty, my love is memoir. Thanks to memoirs, memoir instruction books, online courses, private instruction, and webinars, I am confident in my understanding of what true memoir is, and what it is not. Is there a genre any more misunderstood than memoir? Based on my research and experience, I think not!
First-time memoirists send their manuscripts to me for assessment or as the first step to coaching or developmental editing. I would guesstimate that four of five of the memoir manuscripts I read suffer from the same flaw—the writer is trying to cover too much in the memoir. I have written about this in my blog post Writing Memoir: Avoid These Common Mistakes and How to Choose a Memoir Theme. Frankly, I’ve touched on it in nearly every bog post I’ve written about memoir writing. Why? Because having a clearly defined theme (which is not the same as the plot/story line) is absolutely key to writing a good memoir that people will want to read. Key!
Staying the Course
I started to work with a brand-spanking new memoir writer two years ago. He showed me his first ten chapters, within which I could identify at least four different themes—he was all over the place. In his first chapter, he wrote about a woman, now deceased, whom he admired and had learned about the meaning of life from (or so he said). The memoir was to be dedicated to her. By three pages into Chapter 2, she was gone, never to return.
Now, this doesn’t mean your theme can’t be modified or fine-tuned as you write, or even after you feel your first draft is finished. Does this sound like I am contradicting myself? My point is, a theme might start as:
How my life with four younger brothers who went on to lives of crime led me to become a social worker.
to one of greater insight:
How I learned to forgive myself for not being able to prevent my younger brothers from turning to lives of crime.
Do you see the difference? Embedded in the writer’s original theme is a hint at her sense of having failed her family. But her career choice is not the heart of the story, it is symbolic of her (possibly subconscious) desire to get over her sense of having let down her brothers by helping others avoid making their mistakes.
Spilling Your Guts
Recently, an aspiring memoir writer said to me, “I just want to keep writing, I’ll decide on my theme later.” Oh, no. No, no, no. That is a formula for wasted time and effort. And, ultimately, wasted money, when the time comes for the editing phase. For those who read this and think, why can’t the writer just let it all out? I suggest you read my post Writing About Trauma. In it I say,
Memoir writing is not therapy. A memoir is not a therapeutic journal. Simply re-living painful events in your life and calling it a memoir is not helpful to you nor is it a source of comfort or inspiration to a reader.
If you feel the need to get it all out in your writing, I suggest you might not be ready to write a memoir. Read my post Is It Time to Write Your Memoir? When, through your writing, you recognize your transcendence and see clearly what your experiences have taught you, then it’s memoir time.
Help Finding Your Theme
There are several questions that a writer should be able to answer (or at least take a good stab at) when planning to write or revise a memoir. Memoir writing coaches know how vitally important the answers to these questions are:
1. What is the theme of your memoir? That is, what have you learned that you are sharing in your memoir?
2. Who is your primary audience? If you were looking across a table at your ideal reader, describe who that person is.
3. How do you want the reader to feel when they've finished your book?
4. What do you hope to achieve with your book? (Don’t say make money!)
If you feel you have a pretty good idea of how to answer all or most of these questions, you are ready to start writing. Contact me and let’s start your memoir journey.
In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.