Is your memoir finished? It’s a great question to ask yourself before you send the manuscript off to an agent or move ahead with self publishing.
Many people who sit down to write a memoir see themselves as a reporter whose job is to get their life down on paper just as it happened. They have given little thought to the audience for their book. If they have considered why anyone would want to read their story they will tell you, “ my life has been so interesting (or difficult, or unusual – pick your favorite adjective) people have always told me I ought to write a book.”
That book is not what readers are looking for when they read a memoir. Readers are looking for insight, inspiration, understanding or perspective drawn from the events they read about. They want lessons from the writers experiences that are of value to them in their own lives.
Those lessons and insights are missing from the manuscripts many writers, particularly first time authors, think are finished. The writers have gotten the events of their lives onto the page, but not the meaning of those events. What they really have is a draft not a finished manuscript. To get it ready to find an appreciative audience it’s going to need some thoughtful revision.
Often the writer has focused on four of the journalists 5 Ws – who, what, when, where, and how, but not so much on why? This requires you to move beyond reporting to reflecting. It means understanding motivations for the actions you describe, because your reader is going to be interested in the perspective and wisdom you have gained from experience that allows you to look backward with much sharper insight into the events than you may have had when you lived through them.
Part of the the reflection in a quality memoir deals with emotions. The first draft usually describes the emotions the author has traditionally shared with others when talking about the events she is now describing. But a memoir that seeks to dig deeper, to get a the why of events, explores the emotions the author may have experienced but never shared when the events in the book actually happened. Occasionally in reflecting on events memoirists will get in touch with emotions they may have experienced but never really admitted to themselves. It is the probing of what happened that will give the events depth that will engage readers.
I often asked students reflecting on events in the past a simple question, “So what?” For it is in discovering the significance of events that the author can provide insight into the lessons they have to teach.
So most memoirs need some significant revision. That’s not of the sort related to the telling of the story as it happened. It means looking at the story with the new eyes of a more thoughtful person with richer life experience and more understanding than the author possessed when the events were happening. In the process of making this kind of revision you may recognize that some details in the draft are less significant than they seemed and should be removed from the final version of the manuscript. At the same time some of the events which remain need to be explored much more deeply than they were in the draft. The richness which results is what will interest and engage your readers.