What Is It Like Being You?

An Introduction to Memoir Writing

Paint Lick Cover
My mother’s memoir

Nobody else on the planet or in the history of time has lived the life you’re living.  No one else has the same view out over the universe, feels exactly as you do, or understands the human experience with your unique perspective and insight.  And so, the stories you have to share matter.  They matter for readers whose stories resemble yours, for those who grew up in a different era or different social or cultural environment, and for the future.  Your writing will help others to understand some of what it has meant to be you, living in your time and settings, in your body and soul.

Starting out to write a memoir can seem daunting.  Instead of helping, books about memoir writing can be more discouraging than enlightening.  Most memoir “gurus” stress making your story read like a novel, with an exciting plot that builds and builds and finally moves to a powerful conclusion.  Yes, autobiographies and memoirs from people with dramatic life stories do most easily find traditional publishers and fame.  But that fact doesn’t mean that our quieter life stories don’t have equal merit and importance and aren’t worth sharing.  On the contrary, everyone’s story matters; every writer has the potential to share something of value.  And the very process of writing memoirs can be powerfully meaningful to the writers themselves.

Ruth and Doris Burgess
My mother and her older sister

I’ll take this opportunity to explain the general distinction between an autobiography and a memoir.  An autobiography chronicles a life, often from the writer’s earliest years to the time of the writing.  In a memoir, the focus is less comprehensive and more thematic.  Memoirs reflect on selected aspects of how it has been or is to be the author.  For example, in my mother’s memoir, Paint Lick, the chapters are in generally chronological order, but instead of providing a complete history of her life, the book gives readers insight into how she experienced pivotal aspects of her childhood and young-adult years.  These include her family, the village in which she grew up, her schooldays, the role of music and religion in her home, and so on.  Autobiographies tend to be written by famous people.  Memoirs are fertile writing ground for everyone.

This post begins a series of short articles about how to share your life on the page—whether you are writing for your family and friends, for your own satisfaction, or for readers around the globe.  I’ll be debunking the myths that confuse and discourage too many would-be memoirists: the falsehoods that the ability to produce meaningful writing is a gift given only to the few, that there’s a set-in-stone format for each type of writing, that people with less than flashy lives can’t write interesting memoirs, that it’s overly egotistical to want to write about oneself, that memoirs must tell all (sparing no one and revealing every distressing detail), and so on.  Getting rid of these misperceptions frees writers to write: to understand and reveal the meanings and moments that have mattered most to them.

Next: Getting Started

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