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Why Memoir and Self-Help Need to Be Separate Books

If you’re writing a memoir to share your story with readers and are considering incorporating elements of self-help into it to teach your reader about what you yourself learned from your experiences, resist the urge. Memoir and self-help books need to be separate books because they operate uniquely and develop in opposite directions as works of literature. Where a self-help book’s purpose is to instruct and guide the writer and can (and should) infuse aspects of memoir into it to illustrate its points, a memoir is a personal journey shared through an immersive narrative that is ultimately resonant because it brings the reader into the story. that incorporates self-help undermines its own literary purpose as an immersive narrative. The good news for memoirists is that the learning a reader derives from going through your story is experiential and in many ways that much more meaningful and lasting than any overt instruction ever could be.

Writing a memoir to share your story is a wonderful way to intimately connect with readers. By both telling your story and showing scenes of key moments in your life, your reader is ushered through this period of time or experience as if they are physically present. This immersive process enables them to derive the same learning, insight, catharsis, and growth as you did in an instinctive embodied way.

If you’re worried the memoir won’t cut it on its own in terms of providing the same lessons you got from living through your experiences, you may come to the idea of bringing in instructional elements of self-help to ensure the learning sticks.

After all, you likely endured difficult circumstances to get to where you are today, and you want to help your reader avoid having to go through all that. (Isn’t that the point?)

 

Yet incorporating aspects of self-help into a memoir is problematic and should be avoided. 

A memoir is an intimate, immersive story that delivers the reader from one state of intellectual and emotional being to another. From beginning to end—just like a novel—the reader is beside the author in their on-page world.

A self-help book is a completely instructional environment meant to help the reader learn about a specific topic to find a new way to live or to improve in a specific area.

So where a self-help book can and should incorporate narrative (or memoir) via anecdote or case study to help the instructional elements or theory stick, a memoir should not ever bring in overt instructional elements as they would “break the dream of the story,” undermine the power of the work, and confuse the reader. 

Given how different the two genres are and how they operate with different purposes, a memoir and a self-help book need to be separate books. 

e-reader on print background with pencil

Memoir and Self-Help: How These Books Are Constructed

Memoir “turns the lens inward” toward the memoirist

A memoir is a narrative, or a story, that details a particular time in the memoirist’s life or an experience they underwent inside of a limited frame. It is told with a purpose, typically one that involves the memoirist undergoing a trial (or series of trials) and ultimately emerging with a newfound sense of clarity, insight, or shifted or deepened worldview and changed in some significant way.

Though it can be told in a variety of ways, a memoir’s strength is the candid persona (the writer) sharing their story, and that the story develops along a traditional story “arc” with a beginning, a middle, and an end like a novel. (Even if it’s told out of order, if reassembled, it would lay out in a linear fashion).

novel plot arc

The intimacy of a memoir is created through the writer drilling down into deeper and deeper levels of candor as they wend their way through recounting their story by using both exposition (telling) and showing pivotal scenes. This intimacy invites the reader to sink deeper and deeper into the memoirist’s story, and in parallel, also learn, grow, and emerge from the story changed.

The learning that happens from memoir then is intuitive, subtextual, and specifically human: our emotional and intellectual life is broadened and altered by virtue of being brought along on another person’s journey. That’s empathy playing out in its most exciting form.

If you are tempted to include aspects of self-help in your memoir, resist the urge. That's just your impostor syndrome talking. Your memoir will teach your readers perfectly well on its own.

If you consider the memoirs you’ve read, you will without a doubt be able to recall your own learning and growth as a result of those stories, which was intuitive and instinctive: a slow quiet burn as a result of your being immersed in the story.

faded stack of self help books

Self-help “turns the lens outward” toward the reader

The purpose of self-help (or self-development, self-actualization, or personal development) is to do just that: help, guide, or inform the reader on a specific subject, typically on something the reader is lacking or wishes to fix or improve. These books are teaching tools: meant to provide instructional guidance from an authority figure in the space.

 

Because research has shown unequivocally that people learn best through stories, a self-help author will infuse personal anecdotes and narratives into their books to help make the facts, examples, statistics, resources, and workbook elements as resonant and useful for the reader as possible. These additional elements are largely what make the learning accessible.

Why Memoir and Self-Help Need to Be Separate Books

When a reader first gets a book, they will already be primed to enter into the book’s experience based on its genre. The genre is in effect the first layer of a book’s “contract” with the reader.

  • A memoir reader knows they will be immersing in someone’s story and brought along on their highly personal journey.
  • A self-help reader expects they will be taught lessons (and be an active participant as a student) that will help them heal a particular pain or gain tools to live an aspect of their lives better.

As with all books, the contract upon which the reader enters the reading experience should be upheld. The book should not “break” the contract by shifting away from what the genre sets out to do.

A vintage camera in front of pink peonies
  • The lens of a memoir is turned inward, toward the memoirist. The reader walks through the memoir’s story alongside the memoirist, and any change or catharsis they experience as a result of going along the writer’s journey is experiential, embodied, and intuitive.

  • The lens of a self-help book is turned outward, toward the reader. The writer is in service as an authority figure in that field and they have written the book to teach the reader specific information and to give them tools they can put into action in their own lives.

The fact that these books’ purposes are diametrically opposed makes them most effective when they stay in their lanes. While a self-help book can and should incorporate elements of memoir to make the learning stick and resonant for the reader, a memoir should not incorporate elements of self-help, which would upend the intimacy and trust and also be confusing. Instead, the memoirist needs to have the faith that the story itself will impart the lessons they wish- and with great depth and human connection.

laptop on table with lemon water

What if you are a coach, thought leader, or business owner and want to write a memoir and a self-help book?

Rather than try to incorporate both genres into one book, instead consider that you are in the enviable position of having two books on your hands! Many business owners take a teaching stance as a matter of habit in their writing, but if you have a personal story to tell, then the best action is to tell it in full as a memoir and let your humanity and experiences guide the way all the way through. A memoir is your opportunity to turn the lens inward to explore your own story with purpose and clarity—both for yourself and for your reader.

Later, after you have gained the requisite clarity and insight from having meaningfully plumbed your own history, it will feel that much more fulfilling to use what you learned as the locus for a self-help book that serves your particular audience. It’s then that you can turn the lens around to face your reader and give them new tools they can apply to their own lives to live better.

 

What’s wonderful about memoir is you can trust in the power of your story and know that if you tell it with depth, candor, and heart, your reader will learn everything you wish them to- and more. 

Memoir’s transformative power—and why it is such a uniquely important genre—lies in its ability to give the reader a life experience they will never forget.

stack of memoirs
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