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    « Do I Need to Keep a Journal to Write a Memoir? | Main | The Editor's Role »

    It’s Not About What Happened

    When you think about your life story, do you search your memories for the most dramatic experiences? Memoirists can be terribly competitive, trying to one-up the other guy. As if your book will be a better book if you had the most unusual childhood, the most exotic adventures, the greatest tragedy to befall you, etc. The problem with this approach is twofold: writers are forced to exaggerate or even lie about their life events, as James Frey so famously lied about his drug addiction. The other consequence of this inflation of life experiences is that ordinary people feel inadequate. Most of us have not had exotic life experiences, and perhaps our memoirs do not have plot lines suitable for Hollywood blockbusters. Does this mean that we can’t write an excellent memoir?

    Memoirs are not about “what happened next”. In fact, the events can be relatively mundane, or even relatively few. Let go of the idea of a linear, chronological plot, based on what happened. The real stuff of memoir is what lies between the events – the reflections on meaning.

    If you’ve ever kept a diary or journal, you will see that reflection far outweighs events simply by glancing through your back pages. I would expect there are entries where you have explored important ideas at length. Other entries are shorter, more reportorial. Which are better? The more reflective passages. In fact, you will find that some of these best reflective passages have very little to do with the events that precipitated them. They are more complex and far-reaching, a heady exploration of cause and effect, revelation, and conjecture.

    This is the best stuff of memoir. The depth of your reflections is not limited by any external measure of dramatic action. The quality of your reflection is not limited by the person you were; although you may have been a callow youth while an event occurred, you are writing about it now. What does the mature, wise you of today have to say about what it all meant?

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