I recently had the privilege of presenting at the Capital City Writers Association’s Write on the Red Cedar conference in Lansing. It was a delight. I had such a great time speaking on the topic of memoirs and personal essays that I thought I’d share some of the takeaways from my session here in a little series. Because you’ve always wondered what things I might know. Here are some of them.
Whenever I have the privilege of doing a book reading or writing presentation, I always spend some time talking about the power of sharing your story. Everyone has a story, and everyone’s story is worth sharing, I say. I stand behind this. It is both true and important.
But in another way, it’s not true, right? Everyone has a story that has value in their own lives, within their own circle of humans. However, if you’re hoping to publish your story, to craft it into something marketable, the bar is a bit higher. And before you start down the long road of drafting it all out, editing it until your heart sweats and pitching it to agents, a good first step is to determine if your story is worth telling, not just to your friends and family, but to a larger audience of readers.
How can you know? To me, it comes down to two things: striking a balance between bizarre and relatable, and having a solid theme.
The Bizarre/Relatability Spectrum
The story of Gunshy, the handsome old man on the left in this photo, is one I will tell and retell my family and friends for years. He was a truly special dog. But, in my judgement, the value of my story of being Gunshy’s mom doesn’t have much appeal beyond my inner circle. Fortunately for everyone, a truly special dog isn’t a rarity.
There’s a reason why anyone who has been kidnapped/won an Oscar/chewed their arm off to escape something gets an automatic book deal. Those are super unique experiences, and people have a natural curiosity about them.
On the other hand, humans are also inherently self-centered creatures who like to find ourselves in everything. That’s why the story of a high school wallflower — to whom so many can relate — who grows up to win a Nobel Peace Prize is so compelling. It gives readers a chance to both see themselves in the experience, as well as marvel at an extraordinary story.
Ideally, a memoir is both relatable and bizarre, but there is a bizarre/relatability spectrum. The more bizarre something is, the less demand there is for it to be relatable. If you actually woke up one day to find aliens in your apartment and went with them on a years-long space journey, only to return to find Earth time has only moved forward a few days, you do not have to worry so much about relatability, my friend. Everyone wants to hear what that was like, no matter how little of themselves they could find in your character (would the story be better if they could? Yes.).
Conversely, if you manage to find a topic that is incredibly relatable and yet still unwritten about, that can be equally compelling. Consider Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. Part research report, part autobiography, this book is an investigation into what Schulte calls “the overwhelm” of American parents and workers. It’s something so relatable, nearly everyone can pick it up and say, “This book is about my life. I must read it.” (And you should. It’s sort of amazing.) The only bizarre element of the book is that Schulte sets aside of portion of her life to puzzle out this commonplace phenomenon — something we all might pretend we could do ourselves had she not been so nice as to do it for us.
More likely though, your memoir will come down somewhere in the middle of the bizarre/relatability spectrum. If it doesn’t have both features, spend some time considering why. You may simply need to find the bizarre or the relatable in your story, and re-craft your memoir concept around it.
So…what’s the point?
The last thing you want someone to say when they put down your memoir was that it had no point. You want readers to be entertained, you want them to empathize with your story, yes. But you also want them to take something away from it, to learn something new, or have a deeper understanding about the world or their own place in it. There’s got to be a point.
I won’t go into this deeply here because it’s honestly not important to know the theme of your story when you first sit down to write it. You could have some ideas. You might simply have a gut feeling that it all means something, you just haven’t sorted it out yet. That’s fine. Writing your story is a journey, (which, spoiler alert, is the topic of the last part of this series!) and you are changed by the writing of it. Your story is changed by the writing of it.
All you need to know at the beginning is that you’re writing toward something. Your story needs a theme, a point, a takeaway. Your mission as you write is to be open to discovering what it might be. That theme, along with writing a story that is compelling both by its uniqueness and its relatability, will ultimately be what makes your story truly worth telling on a broad scale.
Check out the other topics in this memoir writing series: