I did a quick google search for ‘best selling Australian books 2019’ as I wrote this article, and unsurprisingly, the first three books I saw were memoirs.
The right memoir can do exceptionally well. Elizabeth Gilbert sold over four million copies of her Eat, Pray, Love, the story of her quest for meaning and inner peace across several continents. It was equal to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, the story of a miserable Irish childhood. Another miserable childhood story, this time from the US, The Glass Castle, sold 2.7 million copies.
Why do we love to read other people’s real-life stories so much?
They’re a good read.
The best memoirs are well-written, with a distinctive voice and a strong story structure that has the beginning, middle and end that every work of fiction relies on. We follow the character through their challenge, quest or discovery, fight their battles with them, and marvel at their transformation at the end.
They give us true insight into other people.
Putting your hopes, dreams and flaws on a page for all to see can feel exposing for the memoir writer, but it’s a gift to the reader. We don’t know many people as well as we know ourselves. When you read someone’s heartfelt story, it’s an opportunity to intimately understand not only an individual, but humankind.
They allow us glimpses into situations we haven’t experienced.I’ve never lived with drug-addicted parents, hiked a 1200-mile trail or travelled to a war zone to be a medical officer, but I’ve read the experiences of those who have. Their stories opened my eyes, moved me and challenged me. Most of us live safely in the suburbs; reading a memoir is a world-widening experience.
They teach without being didactic.
While I press the point home to my memoir students that writing their story is not the same as writing a sermon (ie. no lecturing!) it’s true nevertheless that readers will learn. Lessons are gained from the writer’s experiences and transformation. Anyone who has ever tried to teach a child—or an adult—will know that we all listen to a story more easily than a ‘you should’. By reading other people’s stories, we learn lessons for our own lives.
Types of memoirs
While it’s true that there are plenty of memoirs written about tragic childhoods, abusive marriages or terrible sicknesses, memoirs don’t have to be miserable. There are canine memoirs, eccentric-mother memoirs, travel and celebrity memoirs and a whole sub-genre based around the ‘My Year Of…’ concept. I’m thinking Julie and Julia, where Julie Powell decided to cook her way through the famed French cookery book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking; and Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood, in which she spent a year following the Bible’s instructions to women, literally and figuratively.
You could argue that blogs, which after all, are mostly personal stories, are memoir in short form. Often, a blog will become a book. My memoir, Love Tears & Autism drew on the five years of blog posts I published following my three-year-old son’s diagnosis with ASD.
If you’re writing a memoir, here are three tips.
A memoir is not the same as an autobiography
An autobiography spans a person’s lifetime and doesn’t necessarily have an overarching story arc that ties it together. Sporting or political ‘memoirs’ are more technically biographies and often are not much more than a series of events or anecdotes in chronological order. It’s important to get the facts and details right in this sort of narrative. A memoir, however, tends to focus on a period or significant event in a person’s life, and is more about how the person perceived the events, was challenged by them, and learned from them.
See yourself as the 'main character' of a story
Any good fiction protagonist must be a well-rounded character, with flaws as well as strengths. If you’re only shining off the page of your memoir, readers will close the book in disgust. We all know that real people have warts. Memoir readers want to see a balanced, honestly drawn character.
See the events as a story
Readers have expectations of what a story will give them. They seek challenge, tension and a win (of some kind) at the end. If you know the rules about story structure, you’ll be better placed to write a memoir that will hook readers and give them exactly what they are looking for.
Looking for good examples of memoirs to read and learn from? You’ll find some of my favourites listed on this page of memoir resources.
Cecily Paterson teaches memoir writing in her unexcitingly named online course, Write Your Memoir. Her own memoir, Love Tears & Autism won Third Prize in the 2012 Australian Christian Book of the Year Award. She’s the author of seven MG/YA novels for girls, with an eighth title to be published with Wombat Books in 2020.