Famous and infamous people have written revealing memoirs. Maybe you should consider writing one, too. It’s not as far-fetched as you might think. Nor is it necessarily just an exercise of vanity.
Memoirs share lived experiences, hard knocks, lessons learned and deep feelings. They contribute to collective history, much the way old pots reveal stories in archeological sites. Memoirs celebrate the notion that no one is unimportant. Everyone has something to say and, by living, earned the right to say it.
Most memoirists write for a reason. Meghan McCain’s memoir Personal, Intimate and Raw was written to settle old scores. Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father served to introduce him as he emerged as a national political leader. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes traces his poverty-ridden childhood in Ireland. Edmund White’s My Lives breaks down the chapters of his life, including candid sexual interludes. Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club offers a vivid look at pre-adolescence. Harry Crews recalls in A Childhood how he recuperated from a serious injury by making up stories about the people he saw in the Sears and Roebuck catalogue.
In some ways, a memoir is a public version of a personal diary. Memoirs let others peek at someone’s private thoughts and musings about relatives, friends, teachers and ministers, about lived experiences and about their hopes and fears and jubilations. Memoirs often are a mix of misery and joy, ups and downs, victories and defeats, a checkered cloth of interactions, reflections and pivotal moments.
The very best memoirs are beautifully written, evocative and even poetic. Virtually every memoir is another chunk of human history, much like those ancient pots, which can be grand or pedestrian. In this perspective, anyone’s story, everyone’s story has value by adding to the pot of human expression that marinates into history.
A simple way to look at memoirs is as a collection of memories tied together in story form. Or as one writer put it: “Memoir shapes life events into a story that communicates your truth to others.”
Writing to communicate your truth typically follows contemplating the events that brought you to that truth. You recall the threads and themes of your life, whether painful or uplifting or merely instructive. You can invest your life’s journey with generalized meaning – a world view, lessons learned, regrets and inspirations.
Memoirs don’t have to be bestsellers. They can satisfy an author if read by friends, family members, children and associates. People who know you will better understand why and who you are. Your experience and example can turn into a powerful influence on your readers.
Memoirs are less daunting to consider than an autobiography, which carries the presumption that other people need to know about your life. Memoirs aren’t presumptuous. They are written by authors less interested in selling books than explaining how they became who they are.
Many memoirs aren’t books. They are blogs, essays, short stories, poems and, occasionally, obituaries. They are substance over form, message over formula. They are a unique genre, private and public, fiction and nonfiction, a personal tour of a lifetime.
In addition to self-satisfaction and self-realization, one of the rewards or writing a memoir is connecting with people who share a common storyline. A memoir, in this sense, is like writing a profile on a dating app, with the hope of something more comforting and inspiring than a hook-up.
Writing a memoir requires dedication as much as proficiency with words. Threading through your life isn’t an afternoon walk in the park. Recollections for a memoir can unearth uncomfortable experiences, bad decisions or buried memories. The threads need to be stitched into a coherent narrative, not a stream of consciousness. The writing style is less important than the commitment to tell your story in a compelling way. The words you choose fade in importance to the meaning you infuse into them.
“Memoirs aren’t just for famous people,” says Vietnamese author Hoang Chi Truong. “Yes, there is a category in biographies for celebrities and politicians, but there are also rooms for many of us to shine brightly because we have the tenacity and courage to share our stories. Think about it, who could better tell your life story than you, yourself?”
Hoang followed her advice and wrote TigerFish: A Memoir of a South Vietnamese Colonel’s Daughter and Her Coming of Age in America. She overcame naysayers to write her memoir and now counsels others on what she calls a “therapeutic and cathartic process to address some of your unresolved past issues” while helping others when the memoir is published or posted.
“First and foremost, focus on message,” she advises. “Inform, inspire, entertain or educate your readers about a life.” Expect fallout, especially if what you write is painfully true and takes a swipe at political or social injustice, she says, which requires thick skin. “See yourself as writing for those like you, who can’t or won’t speak up for fear of ostracism, safety and retaliation,” Hoang urges.
The process of scoping and penning a memoir can be a “healing and transformative journey,” says Amber Lea Starfire in a blog titled, “5 Reasons to Write Your Memoir”. “Many memoirs are about difficult subjects: poverty, abuse, mental and physical illnesses, death and loss,” Starfire writes. “But it isn’t necessary to have a hard life to write a meaningful memoir.”
Many memoirs are about difficult subjects: poverty, abuse, mental and physical illnesses, death and loss. But it isn’t necessary to have a hard life to write a meaningful memoir.
Starfire quotes Jeannette Walls, author of her own memoir, The Glass Castle:
“One of the lessons I’ve learned from writing this memoir is how much we all have in common. So many of us think that certain things only happened to us and somehow they make us less of a person. I’m constantly urging people, especially older folks, to write about their lives. It gives you new perspective. Memoir is about handing over your life to someone and saying, ‘This is what I went through, this is who I am, and maybe you can learn something from it’. It’s honestly sharing what you think, feel, and have gone through. If you can do that effectively, then somebody gets the wisdom and benefit of your experience without having to live it.”