Why do people write memoirs?
For the same reasons we gossip, go to movies, read fiction and biographies and memoirs, attend the theater, follow the lives of celebrities or get wrapped up in soap operas. Because we’re sociable! And when it comes to our own lives, we feel clearer-headed and happier when events that affected us deeply are refined into a story that we can share.
You may think your life isn’t worthy of a memoir unless you did something that has already put your name in the newspapers.
But there are all kinds of memoirs, and you can choose your kind. Write about your childhood, like Frank McCourt did so movingly in Angela’s Ashes. Write about your travels, as Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love. Write about a connection with a strong personality, as Lorna Kelly did in The Camel Knows the Way, which tells the story of her time with Mother Teresa. Mary-Ann Tirone Smith traced a murder in Girls of Tender Age.
Many memoirs are about illness, or coping with the illness of others in your life. You can write about the importance of friendships or siblings or a marriage.
In fact, if you write about seemingly unremarkable events in your voice–distilling your honesty, humor, insight or compassion-your book can be as inspiring or touching as a story about high drama. You can bond with readers, who like you, have not lived through extraordinary events, but the ordinary events that make life extraordinary.
Writing a memoir is an act of believing in yourself and the value of your life for others.
Perhaps you are haunted by a mistake–writing a memoir may be a confession, and a way to give readers the benefit of your regret.
Perhaps you are happy about your role in events you couldn’t reveal until now.
Perhaps you are perplexed about the role someone else played in your life and need to tell the stories so you can see past blame or shame.
The challenge is coaxing the story out. As you write, you will hear yourself think. Eventually you will decide what is most important, to you. One person’s version of events can be completely different in meaning and tone than another’s. Your story is yours.
A clear story has a theme, though it may be subtle. You will choose to include some details and leave others out. Much of your story’s impact will come from your choice of words, pacing, and statements about the world, as well as the twists and turns of circumstance.
People are most often drawn to memoir and autobiography in older age, when we have time for reflection and may want to leave a story for our children and grandchildren to read. If you write down your stories, they are not lost. They are not lost in your memory–you can reread them as long as you are alive. And it is very likely that someone in your family will read your book and keep it close at hand when you are gone.
In my own family, my grandmother’s memoir became very important to us after she died, and helped us sort out mysteries about her past. My mother died before my nephew Ben met his fiance–so she never met his beloved New York grandmum. His fiance has read her autobiographical play as a way of getting to know her.
A good therapist can help you work on a memoir, if you are facing pain or confusion. A writing group or class can be inspiring and provide structure to keep you on a work schedule. A sympathetic, talented professional editor can copy-edit, line-edit, or critique, applying writing skills that bring out your meaning and perfect your language, so you can communicate powerfully and clearly even if writing is relatively new for you. Writing about yourself can bring up all kinds of self-doubts. After all, you probably haven’t spent your life writing–you’ve been living the stories you will tell!
Do you want to be a published author? You can self-publish, find an agent or publisher–or simply, gladly, write for yourself.