Writing a memoir that connects with an audience is not about telling your story. “Unless you're Bill Clinton or Mick Jagger,” said novelist and memoirist Holly Robinson, in The Huffington Post, “nobody but your best friend cares about your life story (and she might be pretending).” Writing a great memoir depends on telling your story in a way that gives readers an insight into their own lives and the human condition.
Great memoir relies on the tools of the story teller and is reflective rather than reportorial. The author looks at who she was and who she has become. As memoirist Jeff Goins, author of Wrecked and The In-Between put it, “Good narrative nonfiction always connects the reader’s heart to a deeper truth.”
A winning narrative usually focuses on examining a critical formative moment or experience. A limited period of time becomes the lens through which to understand the author’s life. The narrative may cover many years, as Frank McCourt began Angela’s Ashes with the words, “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all.” Or it may examine a much more limited time, as did Cheryl Strayed’s recent best seller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which tells the story of her 1995 hike through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains, from California’s Mojave Desert to Oregon and Washington state.
A great memoir captures the immediacy of the moment, like the “radical aloneness” of Strayed’s hike and the physical trials she experienced, but it goes beyond that moment. It is always about self-discovery.
It connects with a broader, more universal theme that provides both the author and her reader a clearer understanding of their common experience.
A great memoir grows not out of merely telling a story about one’s life, but about discovering that kernel of insight that connects its reader to the author’s life. It’s not enough to simply tell your story. As Holly Robinson put it, “This isn't therapy. The story has to go somewhere.”