Writing a memoir is all about making choices.
Tobias Wolff, the author of the wonderful memoir This Boy’s Life, put the memoirist’s task in this way, “Memory is funny. Once you hit a vein the problem is not how to remember but how to control the flow.”
How do you decide what belongs in your memoir? Helen Keller explained her approach in The Story of My Life this way, “In order, therefore, not to be tedious I shall try to present in a series of sketches only the episodes that seem to me to be the most interesting and important.”
That seems simple enough, but Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays With Morrie, warns, “Anyone who tries to write a memoir needs to keep in mind that what’s interesting to you isn’t necessarily important to a reader.”
The audience is looking to a memoir for understanding of a universal experience. What can the experiences the author recounts tell them about their own lives? Overcoming obstacles, resiliency, loyalty, love, loss, friendship, service, self-sacrifice, aging, and compassion are all experiences essential to the human condition. They have served as the themes of countless memoirs. The way a reader experienced any one of them may differ substantially from the way the memoirist did. But viewing the universal experience through another set of eyes may give the reader a clearer of the road ahead.
One of the most important reasons for the appeal of memoirs to contemporary readers is their value in helping people pursue what the great psychologist Victor Frankl describes as Man’s Search for Meaning in his memoir of his experiences as a holocaust survivor.
“Truth in memoir is achieved not through the recital of actual events,” said Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story. “It is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense the writer is able to make of what happened.”