Writers question all the time whether their stories are worthy of memoir. If you know that telling your story will be meaningful to you, give you a valuable chance to examine your life with inquiry, and show others how you transformed to give them as much opportunity to transform, too, then you know you have a memoir worth telling.
Your life events probably follow a similar trajectory as most people’s: birth, childhood, schooling, work, family, old age (hopefully), and death. Yet woven around these common life markers are the situations, people, locations, teachable moments, and foibles responsible for making you interesting and your life unique– and when you experienced the greatest growth and development as a person.
Yet even when writers know an aspect of their life’s journey (a slice of the bigger pie) is worthy of examination and sharing with others, they often talk themselves out of turning their journey into memoir for fear their stories aren’t unique or exciting enough.
“Why would anyone want to read my story? Surely hundreds of people have already written this same book. What new thing could I possibly add to the conversation?”
Compounding the reticence to take to the page may be the pervading idea that memoir should be reserved only for those who have undergone extreme circumstances or endured highly challenging events. Indeed many of these memoirs fill shelves: My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan, or Into Thin Air by John Krakauer, about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster.
For these writers (or lay people who use their remarkable stories to become writers), telling their story as a memoir is a no-brainer. They’ve got a phenomenal and unusual story to tell, the kind that leaves readers on the edges of their seats. Of course, their story is memoir worthy.
But those memoirs that explore a slice of an otherwise “normal” life that detail events common to many people’s human experience are what readers crave because through the universality of the story we see ourselves.
These stories detailing abusive childhoods, enduring the death of a loved one, coping with mental illness, or raising children win awards, top best-seller lists, and make their authors household names for a good reason: a fellow human being has done the careful work of honestly hazarding themselves and their lives, and in this, we find clarity, healing, and catharsis.
Imagine if Joan Didion, author of A Year of Magical Thinking, about losing her husband and the ensuing grief, Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened detailing her battle with mental illness, or Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, about his poverty-stricken childhood in Ireland or Maxine Hong Kingston who in The Woman Warrior writes about straddling the two worlds she occupies of her American present and her parents’ Chinese past to find herself had backed away from writing their memoirs out of fear their lives weren’t memoir worthy. We see ourselves in those author’s experiences. We develop empathy for ourselves and others. We need these stories.
Why Your Memoir Is Important: Immersion, Intimacy, and Inquiry
A memoir— whether it details an extreme situation or a universal story with honesty and depth— is an opportunity for readers to go on a journey, connect with someone else and themselves at a very human level, and grow as human beings.
Memoir allows us to slip into someone else’s skin, just for a while, and walk about in this time of their lives. We may not have grown up in Baltimore with fathers in the Black Panthers like Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Beautiful Struggle, fought against an oppressive regime like Malala Yousafzai in I Am Malala, or tried to recover from divorce by traveling to three different countries like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love, but between the covers, we are right there, transported and moved, and we always return to our lives different people.
Memoir gives us a portal through which we forge an intimate bond with a stranger, who becomes close to us— perhaps even closer than friends or family— due to their having so bravely hazarded themselves on the page. We hold memoir to a rigorous standard of “truth” because memoir allows the reader to drop the psychic suspension of disbelief and forge an intimate bond with the writer as a fellow and very real human being.
Inquiry into Ourselves
Our taking in these stories, unfiltered, very human, and deeply moving because of their candour and access, enables us to turn our gazes inward to examine our own lives with empathy, inquiry, and catharsis. Their stories— whether extraordinary or something billions of people experience every day— make us pause to reflect and become better people, kinder, and more able to understand ourselves and others with compassion.
How do you know if your story is memoir worthy?
If you want to determine whether your story is worthy of memoir, firstly ask yourself: will it feel empowering to tell my story? Will I derive healing and clarity from examining the truth of my life or the life of my family?
Next, to see whether others would also respond to your story, try the dinner party technique (or simply share your story with an acquaintance). If you can hold their attention, elicit sympathy, or make their jaw drop, you’ve likely got a memoir on your hands. If they insist on hearing the rest? Clear your calendar: you’ve obviously got a memoir to write.
At that point, when they’re hooked, they’re craving the story only you can tell, and they’re craving their own transformation for taking part in it. And whether you smuggled children out of a fire or survived single parenthood, your story, and how you bring yourself to the telling of it, is a vital part of the fabric of your life, and soon, a valuable part of others’ as well.
When you’re ready to write your memoir, let us support you through with our Write Your Memoir in 4 Months Program. Continuous mentorship, accountability and custom writing calendar, and comprehensive lessons to help you structure, design, and fuel your stories with writing craft ensure you successfully complete your draft.
Got questions? Please reach out any time for a FREE consultation about your work. We’re always happy to chat!