You have had an interesting life; maybe dramatic, maybe traumatic, maybe even tragic. You want to share it with a large audience in a memoir.
To be successful you will ultimately have to confront what Richard Gilbert, in his blog Narrative, calls “the ‘so what’ dilemma.”
No matter how remarkable the life story you have to tell, Gilbert explains, your reader will be likely to filter your experience through a series of questions, “’So what?’ That is, why should we care about your life? Why should we care what you think?”
The paramount quality which makes a memoir great is not the uniqueness of the incidents it recounts, but the depth of the insights it draws from them.
Brenda Miller, editor of the Bellingham Review and six time Pushcart Prize winner, explains the dilemma in a description of her experience as a judge for the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction:
[U]nfortunately, most of these pieces do bore us, most of them announcing themselves as yet another rendition of “this happened to me, I’m being brave, please listen.” This earnestness makes us sigh and turn to the next piece in the stack. We don’t really want to hear what happened to this stranger.
But occasionally, one of the entries stands out. Winners, Miller says, “usually focus not only upon their content, but on the nature of storytelling itself. They are not ‘trying’ to be brave. They are allowing the essay to be brave for them.”
In the process of focusing on the telling of their stories the authors’ experiences undergo a metamorphosis. Says Miller:
I’ve come to see that at some point—some crucial point—we need to shift our allegiance from experience itself, to the artifact we’re making of that experience on the page. To do so…we must, instead, become keenly interested in metaphor, image, syntax, and structure: all the stuff that comprises form.”
A memoirist who successfully overcomes the “so what dilemma” must mine the ore of unique and interesting stories, but must employ the tools of literature to sculpt a work of art that goes to the heart of those stories themselves and discovers the meaning beyond.