What's so special about memoirs? And what's the difference from a personal essay? Generally, a personal essay explores an idea, and draws upon personal experiences and reflections to draw a conclusion about that idea. It is personal, because it is one person’s opinion, their unique perspective. Personal essays tend to be focused and short.
A memoir can convey so much more than an essay, both in content and style. Like the personal essay, a memoir will delve into an individual's experience in a search for meaning and insight. A book length memoir will, inevitably, include a greater number of personal tales, which can then be linked together to examine cause and effect throughout one's lifetime.
A memoir can also be shaped into a highly artful literary form. As an editor, I often receive a rough draft of a memoir in chronological order. That’s because we tend to think of our life story as beginning at birth and ending with…well, you know. However, if you are asked, “What about the meaning of your life?” all sorts of different life stories will emerge. You’ll explore the turning points that shaped your identity and values. You’ll remember the people who influenced you, for better or worse, and how. These stories, which can be tied together by themes, rather than ordered by date, make for especially fascinating reading.
In the commercial marketplace, we often see published memoirs of famous politicians or celebrities, or memoirs by people who have had such an extraordinary experience that they make national news and sign a book deal. Yet each of us, perhaps in a less public or spectacular fashion, has stories to tell. Life itself teaches us powerful lessons, and if we’ve stopped to learn and reflect, we can share our experiences and teach those lessons to others.
At StoriesToTellBooks.com, we get lots of writers who don’t aspire to a national book deal, but want to self publish their memoirs for family and friends. Now that self publishing is so inexpensive, anyone can write a book for their loved ones, and some may even produce a book that is of wider interest.
What’s the difference between what you write privately, for family and friends, rather than commercially? Private self publishing means you can include the things your family will care to know, and to keep forever. We design books that include precious family photos, letters, recipes, documents. These images illustrate and amplify the memoir’s meaning. An illustrated memoir is wonderfully unique, reflecting the author’s life and interests. A commercial author, on the other hand, must consider what will be universally appealing to the general public, and shape their content to convey more universal and broadly appealing messages. They rarely contain more than a few illustrations, as these are too personal for the general reader.
One of the questions authors often ask is “How do I know if I am done yet?” That’s a good question, as there is a lot of flexibility in memoir; there is no one “right way” or a template to fill in. Like many editors, we offer “manuscript evaluation” to read the draft and advise whether to keep writing, or not. Generally, if the scope of your book is too broad, you’ll write a lot of too short, too shallow stories. With memoir, it’s better to cover less ground, in more depth. After all, if you have many, many stories with a lot of depth, you may have more than enough material to publish two books!
Memoirs are powerful because they touch the heart. They originate from true life stories, and the reader will inevitably put themselves in your shoes and imagine, what if it had been me? Your reader will not only think, but they will feel, as if they had been there themselves. When you tell your stories, you are transporting the reader to a different time and place, and they will know and feel what it was to have lived your life. What greater art?