Three months after I published by book, What’s Your Book?, I went to lunch with an old friend who’s been in the publishing industry forever. When I asked him what he thought of my book, he responded that he liked it, it was good, but that he was puzzled about why I hadn’t included a definition of memoir.
Good point. The truth was that I hadn’t considered it, in part because I never ask my clients to consider whether they’re writing memoir. If someone comes to me saying they’re writing a memoir, I take them for their word. I work with them to shape their work, and if their scope is too broad, I work with them to narrow it.
Elegantly and simply put.
On some level, I’m always striving to help writers who are in fact doing autobiography understand that their work, in order to be memoir, must be slice of life. It must be thematic. It cannot span the entirety of a person’s life, age 0 to 60—or it shouldn’t. Having this very clear distinction between autobiography and memoir, however, helps those writers who are in fact doing autobiography to understand that there is a difference, and that the publishing industry (and most readers) are partial to memoir. Autobiographies really ought to be reserved for celebrities.
Beyond slice of life and theme, memoir has to have a takeaway, or multiple takeaways, for the reader. It may mean that you lose something in the process—beautiful writing, your story. But at the end of the day the lens that you are looking for and the story your inviting your reader into, is clear and contained.
Writing the story of your life may be a necessary process. It might be your first draft and it might be part of what you need to get out on the page before you can distill down what it is you want to write in your memoir. But the story of your life cannot and will not support your author platform. It is too big and too vague and probably too much to sustain a reader’s interest.
Consider what you have on your hands and what you’re trying to achieve. Is it the story of a life or from a life? If it’s the former, what can you do to extract the thematic core that will make your reader best able to wrap their minds around your singular (and relatable) experience?
Take some time to journal about it, and let us know what insights you come up with. We’d love to hear!