I’m going to take the risk of sounding like a jerk. But I’m not trying to discourage you from writing. On the contrary, I want you to take the smartest possible approach to writing your memoir – the one most likely to fulfill your personal goals. So hang in there with me and see if what I have to say makes sense.
Consider for a minute that there are billions of people in the world. And most people think their own lives are pretty darn interesting. It’s human nature. We’re all biased that way.
And most people like to read. But people also have limited time and energy. Few people – if any – will read every book ever written. We’re selective about what we read. We choose what we expect to enjoy the most.
So if a reader is going to choose to read a broad, chronological account of someone else’s life, chances are, they’ll pick up an autobiography about someone they’ve heard of before. A celebrity. An actor, chef, politician. Maybe the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company that’s a household name.
The average person doesn’t know why they should care about your life – the house you grew up in, your favorite teacher, your crazy college days, your first career, your second career, your first marriage, your third divorce. To most people on the planet, you’re a stranger.
But remember, a memoir is different from an autobiography. It represents a small portion of a person’s life. A particular period of time, a challenge overcome, a lesson learned.
If you want your memoir to be read by lots of other people who don’t already know you, you’ll have the best chance if you write a memoir and not an autobiography. Narrow your focus and you’ll broaden your appeal.
An Example of Focus in Memoir
For example, you might decide to write an entire memoir about one summer of your life, like Marjorie Hart did in Summer at Tiffany.
As an Iowa college student in 1945, Hart took a summer job at Tiffany’s in New York City and passed the sweltering months going out on the town with handsome young sailors and rubbing elbows with the rich and famous. Yes, she filled an entire book with tales from one summer of her life – and it’s delightful. It also attracted many readers among people the author never met.
Why did a memoir about one summer have more appeal than a book about Marjorie Hart’s entire life, from birth to the present?
The audience for a Hart autobiography would be rather small, consisting of her family members and close friends. They’re the people who love her; they have the most interest in reading about her whole life.
But when Hart went into detail about her whirlwind summer in the big city, she touched on thoughts, feelings and experiences that many readers could relate to. That’s a memoir.
A Narrower Focus Gives You Freedom!
Here’s how narrowing the focus of your book can actually give you more freedom. The idea might seem limiting at first, but think of all the details you’ll have to skip over or rush through if you’re trying to cover all the major events of your life in one book.
Besides, your memoir might convey a lot more than just your story. It might also be a valuable chronicle of history, detailing what it was like in a particular time and place. Summer at Tiffany, for example, actually does double-duty. Not only is it an entertaining read, but it also serves as an historical account of young women living and working in New York City in 1945.
When you focus on one aspect of your life, you can afford to take your time and richly convey details to your reader. You can delve into your feelings in the moment, and share your insights after the fact. And when you recall your experiences through all five senses, you deliver a product that resonates with the reader and is not soon forgotten. These are the kinds of books people want to tell their friends about.
So, in short, you can’t expect legions of perfect strangers to care about your life, from soup to nuts. But you’ll increase your chances of capturing the interest of strangers with a more specific story, lesson, or message.
Another Good Example
Here’s another example. We already know that Joe Schmoe doesn’t have a great chance of selling his entire life story to a bunch of readers who’ve never heard of him, and are too busy to care. But what if Joe Schmoe was diagnosed with a rare, fatal disease – a disease that no one survives for more than a few months – and he defied that illness to live a robust thirty years, post-diagnosis?
Joe has a great story to tell. Joe’s memoir won’t spend much time on his childhood (unless he was diagnosed as a child). He won’t talk much about his years following the Grateful Dead on tour (unless it relates somehow to his disease – maybe the fact that he was able to follow the band, despite doctors’ warnings that he wouldn’t have the energy). Joe won’t write much about going to law school (except maybe to say that he withstood the pressure despite his disease).
Joe’s story now appeals to lots of people. It appeals to people with his disease, and people who love someone with the same disease. It appeals to anyone with a fatal illness looking for hope or encouragement. It might appeal to doctors and scientists with an interest in disease. It might appeal to anyone facing a great trial in life, looking for inspiration in a story of unlikely triumph.
Your Focus Doesn’t Have to Be Earth-Shattering
A memoir can be about more commonplace experiences, too.
Maybe Jane has a great sense of comedy and tells her friends hilarious stories about surviving her divorce. Jane might have a humorous memoir in her – one that will appeal to millions of other women facing divorce.
Perhaps Anne-Marie had a long history of car trouble, and decided once and for all to become the master of her vehicle. Maybe she spent three months taking automotive classes and was the only woman in a class of guys at least forty years younger than her. And maybe Anne-Marie transformed in multiple ways through her experience – not only did she eventually build an engine from the ground up, but she found herself in a love triangle with two handsome young bucks.
That could be a memoir, too.
EXERCISE: Find Your Focus
So, if you’re going to narrow the focus of your book, how will you decide what the focus will be?
It can seem overwhelming. But following are some questions you can ask yourself that may help you zero-in on the best idea for you.
- What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
- If you were going to leave a note for your grandchild to open on his or her 18th birthday, containing three key pieces of advice about life, what would you write?
- Do you ever look around at the greater population and think, “If only they knew what I know”? What do you want them to understand, and how did you come to understand it?
- Do you ever tell stories to groups of people that keep them riveted, or even make them laugh? Do you ever get requests to “tell that story again”? What are your most popular stories, and why do you think people want to hear them? Do most of these stories have something in common?
- Are you able to complete this sentence?: My life was never the same after ______.
- What are you an expert in?
- What was the single biggest turning point in your life?
- What’s the most unusual situation you ever found yourself in? How did you adjust to or cope with it?
- What’s your favorite memory? What about that memory is so special? What about that memory do you think other people would relate to?
- How have you changed the most?
- How can your life experience help other people?
- Did you play a role in a major historical event? What was your role? How did it affect your life afterward?
- What one thing are you most proud of in your life so far?
- What’s one thing most people have difficulty with, but that you were able to master?
- Did you ever say to yourself, “From now on, I’m living my life differently”? Did you stay true to your word?
- Most of us have moments when we sigh and say, “Ah, those were the good old days.” When were your good old days? What’s the one event that, in your mind, defines those days as “good”?
- Did you achieve something that took immense patience and dedication? How did you get through it?
- Did you make it to the top of your profession? How did you get there? What was it like when you finally got to the top? Was it everything you thought it would be?
- Can you complete this sentence?: Most people would never believe this about me, but I ______.
- When have you completely surprised yourself?
If you’ve been thinking hard, chances are you’ve identified several areas of your life that could translate into separate memoirs. If this is the case, don’t let it overwhelm you. Don’t tell yourself, “I’ll never be able to choose one narrow focus!” Here’s what I want you to remember: you can always write another memoir about another subject. Remember that many authors have written several memoirs. Look at Josh Kilmer-Purcell. His first memoir, I Am Not Myself These Days, was about his days as a drag queen. He’s also the author of The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir.
If you’re having trouble choosing a focus, remember that your writing career doesn’t have to end with this one book. Just decide which focus is calling to you most strongly right now. Start there. Write that memoir first.
To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone.
Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011).