‘Each of us is a book waiting to be written, and that book, if written, results in a person explained.’
Thomas M. Cirignano, The Constant Outsider
Everyone has fascinating, entertaining and moving true-life stories to share. Perhaps you have lived through the war, experienced trauma or lived a colourful life. Maybe you have overcome adversity and wish to share wisdom, enlighten or possibly inspire others with your story, maybe you would like to leave a legacy and document your life story for your grandchildren or heal and understand yourself. Whatever your motivation for writing a memoir, our How to Write a Memoir series is here to help guide, assist and advise you in your creative journey.
First and foremost, it is helpful to understand what defines a memoir, and how it differs from other genres as writing a memoir is completely different to writing non-fiction. A memoir tells the story of an author’s life and tends to concentrate on one period, as opposed to an autobiography, which is often a chronological narrative concerned with historical setting and action. A memoir also has more of a personal feel and an emotional tone than an autobiography. As a result it can take a lot of courage, strength and soul searching to share your story, but it can also be extremely cathartic.
Every memoirist makes an unspoken promise with her reader that what they write is the truth, to the best of their knowledge. So once you sit down to think about writing your memoir, you will have to consider the need for honesty and openness. You will need to decide what your boundaries are how much you feel comfortable to share. Frank McCourt, the author of the memoirs Angela’s Ashes, offers his thoughts, worries and reasoning on the matter below.
‘Writing memoir is like preparing yourself to go to confession,’ says McCourt, who didn’t publish Angela’s Ashes until he was 66. ‘You have to examine your conscience. And that entails honesty. You can’t write an effective memoir if you’re worried about family and friends looking over your shoulder. Even if the truth hurts, if it is truthful, then there’s no other way to present it. At the very least, readers will recognize the courage in that and respect you for it.’
Jeannette Walls, author of the memoir The Glass Castle, shares her thoughts on the honesty and openness required to write a memoir, as well as its value and potential to enlighten others.
‘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,’ says Walls. ‘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.’
Lorna Kelly, author of the memoir The Camel Knows the Way, shares her thoughts about how honesty can allow your readers to connect and relate to you, in so enabling the exchange of insights and wisdom.
‘When you’re truly honest and revealing about yourself, it creates a sigh in other people,’ says Lorna Kelly. ‘They realize they’re not alone, they’re not a freak: Someone else has felt the exact same way or lived their dream. If you’re going to skimp on the truth, then you’re doing a disservice. Honesty is not only a gift to other people—it’s a gift to yourself.’
Everyone is unique, and as such, there are a diverse range of memoirs with ranging subject matters, each sharing and documenting important times, periods and moments of the writer’s unique life experiences. Jeannette Walls wrote of her childhood experiences in her memoir The Glass Castle, as did Frank McCourt in his Pulitzer Prize winning memoir Angela’s Ashes. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about the places she visited on her journey of self-discovery in the blockbuster-hit memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Lorna Kelly choose to document her time with Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity in her memoir, The Camel Knows the Way.
You can choose to write a memoir about anything that matters to you, that you feel passionate about and want to share with others. Your choice of subject for your memoirs is completely irrelevant but it is crucial you are passionate about your subject. As a guide, it is important to remember that if you are not enthusiastic about the subject, you can’t expect your reader to be.
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