Chuck Sambuchino writes this about memoir writing in his blog, Guide to Literary Agents. After reading the advice he and some literary agents had about memoir writing, I couldn’t help but apply it to my own life. What makes my life interesting enough to make someone want to pay $25 to read about it? And what would my memoir have as an overall theme?
As the blog suggests, you either have to have had something really unique happen to you or you have to have a fantastic voice in order to get a publisher interested in your memoir. No one wants to read the ramblings of a writer recounting his entire life. He has to emphasize the juicy parts. I’ve had a lot happen to me in my life, some of it exciting and unusual, a good deal of it boring and pedestrian. How do I determine what’s worth writing (and reading) about?
Like most people my life could have many themes: love and hate, spirituality and religion, mental illness, motherhood, marriage, to name just a few. My memoir would be very different depending upon what theme I choose to base it on. How do you reduce a person’s life to a theme, like some kind of television show? But that’s exactly what you have to do to make your memoir commercial. That may not satisfy the chronicler in you, but if you’re serious about becoming published, you have to put your ego aside and look at your life the way a stranger would.
When you write a bio, how do you sum yourself up? When you’re getting to know someone, what tidbits do you share with him or her? We tend to cater what we say depending on our audience. So maybe the first question you ask yourself should be: who is your audience? Who do you think would be interested in the story you choose to tell? And then pick those themes or parts of your life that would be the most interesting to them. If I were writing to women of a “certain age,” I might want to emphasize my mid-life crises, my multiple marriages, the fourteen-year age difference between me and my husband (he’s younger), or what it’s like to be a grandmother to a boy after having had four daughters. If I were writing to younger adults, I’d need to pick up on the themes that are universal: self-esteem, leaving home, sexuality, education, career, political involvement, socialization, or relationships with our parents and our peers.
What are your triumphs in life? Your failures and disappointments? What have you done that you want to be remembered for? That you normally wouldn’t want anyone to know? What have you always been interested in? Struggled with? Done well? Answering these questions can be key to helping you establish the themes in your life.
But don’t be surprised if you still end up with a big, sloppy mess. That’s what life is like. The role of the writer is to sift through all the junk and end up with the core truths. If you’re writing about your own life, you have to do the same.