Memoir metamorphosis – from dry to rich

I read The Intern’s blog because she has a terrific sense of humor and writes with a great voice. Since I am a fan of memoirs, her observations in yesterday’s post really hit home:

Writing to tell what happened = less potential for greatness.
Writing to discover what happened (even when you technically know what happened) = more potential for greatness. [bolding mine]

Makes me want to smack my forehead and scream at the beagle, “why didn’t I think of that?” Nothing like being shown up by a kid. But she’s a smart kid and deserves major kudos for analyzing what I see as a huge hole in memoirs.

Every place I go, authors tell me they are working on a memoir. I love the fact that so many people have so many fascinating experiences. Alaska was like landing on another planet, and I wished I could have spent time listening to all the brave, crazy, oh-my-GOD stories from these fiercely independent people. But I digress.

An interesting story does not a successful book make, and these stories rarely just write themselves. It’s all in how you tell it, which is what The Intern pointed out. Most memoirs submitted to me read like a dry accounting of someone’s life. It’s as rigid and colorless as cardboard because of its passivity. The author has already lived their life, so it’s difficult to retell it as if they’re experiencing it for the first time. The excitement level and passion aren’t there.  I’m suspicious the reason is that they’re too close to their own story. It’s hard to conjure up old emotions when you’re regurgitating a story you lived. Your goal for an outstanding memoir requires that you include some vital elements.

Make me care

The first order of business for any piece of writing is to engage the reader, and the quickest, most effective way to do that is to make us care about you. Being emotionally involved with you, the author, is the vehicle that compels us to continue turning the pages.

Not every author’s experiences are bigger than life – like a movie star or journalist, where readers will have a natural curiosity because of who these people are.  Stan Chambers fits that description, and readers are always drawn to his story because he’s a Los Angeles news icon.

But rather than merely talking about all the fabulous people he interviewed and the amazing stories he broke, I wanted more from him. I wanted him to come out from behind the microphone for the first time ever and tell his readers how some of these experiences affected him. We are thrilled with the result because readers come away feeling they know Stan on a more human level. And he’s such a sweetheart, that it’s hard to remember he broke the Rodney King beating or interviewed the Pope.

In order to care about you, you need to come clean about who you are. You need to make yourself as three-dimensional on paper as you are in person. So ask yourself; who am I? Defining yourself may be a lot easier than you may think. What attributes or quirks do you have that we can empathize with?

  • Do you sip vodka through the space between your front teeth?
  • Do you let fear rule your life and color the decisions you make?
  • Are you so naturally curious that it gets you into trouble? Or made you a success?
  • Have your childhood experiences/parents/friends colored the person you are today in some pivotal way?
  • Are you a closet softie for pregnant women and dogs?

Take a deep look into yourself and look for elements that shape who you are today and explain why you made the decisions you did. Share yourself.

Making it feel new

Another element of making your story come alive is write like this is a whole new experience and go into your story with the idea of “what do I have to learn today from that experience?” We all know writing is cathartic, and that means you’re digging deep to remember how you felt when you were going through a particular experience. I reject far too many manuscripts because there is no life and personality injected into the writing.

I don’t want to read someone’s diary, which is how many memoirs read. Diaries lack tactile and emotional flavor, much like my meatloaf recipe that’s far south of being a family favorite.

If I feel as though I’m on a journey of discovery with the author, rather than reading a diary-type accounting of a fabulous experience, then I’m engaged. This requires the ability to sit back and remember every detail – not just the physical experiences, but the mental ones. I want to know how your experience made you feel. Don’t tell me; show me. I want to know what’s going on in your heart and soul. That is what keeps readers turning the pages.

Metamorphosis: “My experienced changed me”

I look for memoirs (and pretty much all genres) that expose how your experiences changed you.  I want to see stories where the author was a little caterpillar at the very beginning and, because of what happened to them, bloomed into a beautiful butterfly at the end. By golly gosh, that’s a story I can sell because it’s human nature to desire becoming better than the sum of our parts.

Reading about how someone’s experience altered the way they think or perceive the world and themselves is very inspirational. I’m a big believer that we could all use more inspiration in our lives, and the story that goes from caterpillar, to chrysalis, to butterfly is a timeless journey that has the power to affect our lives forever.

After all, none of us go through life completely unchanged. It’s that moment of clarity, that ah ha! moment where we realize that our experience enriched us, that makes for a memorable memoir. We all want to be butterflies, right?

So these are the elements I look for when reading a biography or a memoir:

  • Do I care about the main character?
  • Does the narrative read like the author is re-experiencing his story for the first time rather than a dry, lifeless rehash.
  • What is the metamorphosis? Be very clear on each stage of development; from caterpillar, to chryaslis, to butterfly.

It’s the difference between a full banquet of yummy foods and my dry meatloaf that the beagle won’t even touch.

2 Responses to Memoir metamorphosis – from dry to rich

  1. Sam Guss says:

    I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate your efforts in this blog and over at Litopia. I’ve learned a lot from you. You have a loyal lurker anyway lol.

  2. Aw, thanks, Sam. A educated, well-informed author is one who is able to make smart decisions that will protect his career, and I’m all too happy to do my small part.

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