Everybody has a story to tell. What makes yours more compelling? More sellable? Good enough to make into a movie? Since you’re probably not Lady Gaga or JJ Watt, readers will not be waiting with baited breath for your story to hit the bookstores. But if you have a burning desire to write your memoir, do it. Don’t let lack of fame stop you.
Here are some basics to help get you started:
Do: Use humor and compassion in telling your story, no matter how horrific your past. Being able to laugh at your crazy families and yourself is a form of healing.
Don’t: Avoid the bad stuff, and don’t whine or blame others for your pain and misfortunes. People who enjoy other’s discomfort usually read the tabloids or watch talk shows.
Do: Get the juices flowing by writing down vivid memories as they come to you. Use five scenes. When you walked into your elementary school many years later, did you still notice the smell of play-dough and peanut butter? When your grandfather took you to your first baseball game and what happened when you heard the crack of a bat?
Don’t: Get hung up on details. You can elaborate later.
Do: Begin with a powerful hook. Remember, it’s okay to mix past and present.
Don’t: Start from the beginning, or write chronologically, unless you were born in a tent outside of Timbuktu and your mother sold you for a bus ticket to Cairo before things out worse.
Do: Write your own story as you remember it.
Don’t: Ask your siblings, parents, or relatives for advice, opinions, or their memories. If to you, Uncle Frank made Idi Amin seem nice, but reminded your brother of Nelson Mandela, your brother can write his own memoir.
Do: Write from your heart.
Don’t: Worry if readers won’t understand. They will.
Do: Be honest.
Don’t: Lie to yourself. So if you’re hiding something too painful to elaborate on, maybe a memoir isn’t for you. But few have a storybook life. We learn from our mistakes, and in most cases are better for it—especially after we write about it.
Do: Be conventional. Like any great page-turner, for your story to be compelling and riveting, it must have a beginning, middle, and end.
Don’t: Include the boring stuff like what you did on a summer vacation.
Do: Read some of the best memoirs. They didn’t make it to the bestseller list for nothing.
Don’t: Get discouraged if your story doesn’t seem to pass muster. Just focus on good writing and storytelling.
Do: Keep your spirits up and think positive.
Don’t: Worry about not being famous. Most hadn’t heard of Frank McCourt before his memoir was published.
Finally, here are some of the best memoirs in my opinion:
Angelia’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
A Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Out of Africa by Isaac Dinesen
This Boy’s Life: A Memoir by Tobias Wolff
PS: Next week’s newsletter gives a peek at two upcoming and captivating memoirs from Cave Art Press: Long Journey to the Rose Garden: An Italian-American Odyssey by John Tursi and Thelma Palmer; and Cigarette Diaries by Frank Pratt.