Trouble is, there are several temptations which often crop up during the writing of a memoir, and in almost every case, caving to any of them will result in a disappointing end product. There’s no point in numbering these as they’re all roughly equal in importance, and while a very few writers might be lured in by all of them, most memoir writers will only deal with one or two. (Thank goodness!)
So, let’s start by managing expectations. There’s very little chance your life story will be so utterly captivating and/or so profoundly worthwhile, that it will hit the New York Times Bestseller list, or anyone else’s for that matter. Think hard about who will be reading your memoir–family, certainly, and friends, possibly even business acquaintances or genealogists in need of period and setting details. For most people, having just such an audience provides all the justification needed for embarking on, and completing, such a major undertaking. But don’t hold your breath waiting for Hollywood to call, unless you’ve been involved in something truly world-changing.
Another common pitfall is accepting less than your best. It’s ironic, I suppose, in light of the topic just discussed, but just because your life story is unlikely to be a runaway bestseller, you are not absolved of the responsibility to write it in the best way you can. This means taking the time to organize your content in a way readers will enjoy. Strict, chronological order might be helpful to you, but it might bore your readers to tears. If, however, the content is flavorful enough, a straight chronology might be the best way to go. Just make sure you choose a format for a reason and not simply because you didn’t take the time to think about doing it any other way. The second part of this issue addresses writing mechanics. If you expect readers to take the time to read your work, you owe it to them to write good material. There are many techniques for writing powerful prose, take the time to learn some of them. (You could do a lot worse than studying my writing textbook, Write Naked!)
Despite what the all-but-sainted Ann Lemott had to say about owning your stories–“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”–please don’t assume your memoir entitles you to take pot shots at everyone who pissed you off during your lifetime. That’s NOT the point of a memoir. Yes, by all means, be truthful, and if someone hurt you, for God’s sake, don’t worry about their feelings when you recount the incident(s). But please, don’t use your memoir as a means to get even. Your life story should be more than a vendetta. If that’s the route you choose, just understand that when it’s done, nobody will like it, including you.
Finally, please understand that you don’t need to save space in your book to mention everyone you’ve ever met. That may sound ludicrous, but all too often, writers I know have agonized over whether or not to mention this person or that one, when–in the grand scheme of things–it simply doesn’t matter. You’re not writing an address book; you’re writing a story. It’s about YOU. It’s not about every teacher you had, every boss who said something nice (or ugly), every guy or gal you dated, every traffic ticket you got, or every movie you saw.
Your story needs to be about you and the things in your life that matter–to you! Deciding what to include in your memoir should be as easy as asking yourself: did this matter to me, or was it just another incident? Running off to Peru with a bongo-playing socialist might have had some impact on your life; running off to Dairy Queen with your best friend on a Tuesday night during summer break probably doesn’t rate inclusion, unless that was the night you met… you-know-who.
Enough foolin’ around. It’s time to get back to work!