AFTER THOUSANDS OF STUDENTS and publishing a book on memoir writing that Poets & Writers lists as Number 1 in books for writers, I’ve boiled down everything I know into my Memoir Manifesto.
It is an irreverent approach to memoir writing: Not a bit touchy-feely, it does not include any angels’ feathers, writing prompts, time-wasting exercises or high-end retail schemes to get you writing memoir. Why? Because none of that works if you want to write for real. And you do.
Here it is. Print it out and paste it to your wall, if you like. Recite it as a pledge or chant it as your mantra. It’s yours to do with as you please. But use it. It works.
THE MEMOIR MANIFESTO
• Stop practicing, and write with intent.
• Stake out your territory.
• Write what you know.
• Go small.
• Pack light.
• Ask, “What is this about?”
• Use the algorithm.
• Act like Galileo in Wal-mart.
• Make your argument.
• Include transcendence.
1. You might be looking for my writing prompts and exercises. There are none. You need to stop practicing and write with intent. Put away the scrapbooks, “morning pages” and other writing practice. Whether your goal is a letter home, a blog post, an essay, or book, you must stop rehearsing and learn to write with intent.
2. Memoir is about writing from one area of your expertise. You have many of them, and each of them has borders. You must write from one at a time, which means that to succeed as a writer, you must learn to stake out your territory. Don’t write your whole life’s story. Write a story from your life that illustrates who you are.
3. When wondering what to write about, the old adage is to write what you know. What this means is that you’ve already got the goods to succeed as a memoir writer. In fact, just like Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers, you always had on you all you need to get where you want to go.
4. The best way to get to the truth about anything is to go small. In writing, the big things in life are best illustrated by their small details. A recent widow struggling with the clasp of her charm bracelet for the first time since the death of her husband illustrates, illuminates and focuses in on grief. Go small and explode life’s large themes.
5. When worrying about how much detail you need to include in your memoir writing, remember to pack light. Success in writing always involves hard choices on what to leave out. Just because something happened, doesn’t make it interesting. What makes any detail interesting is if it drives your story forward.
6. Memoir is not about you, or me. It’s about something universal. That is, if you want anyone else to read it. Ask yourself, “What is this about?” Good memoir takes on something universal and uses you as the illustration of that larger idea. Feel that little elbow shoving you off center stage? Good. You’re on your way to becoming a successful memoir writer.
7. Most of us struggle with form as much as topic, and wonder how to know if our stories are essays, books or something else. Use this writing algorithm: It’s about x, as illustrated by y, to be told in a z. Plug in the factors in any order, as in: It’s about what animals do for us that we cannot do for ourselves, to be illustrated by my life with my cat, Mitsy, to be told in a blog post. Or, it’s about patriotism, as illustrated in my story of riding on a Flag Day parade float, to be told in an NPR radio essay.
8. Memoir can be overwhelming. Every time you start writing, your whole story, your family’s story, the story of the whole world overwhelms you. What to do? Act like Galileo in Wal-mart. To prove the earth revolves around the sun, Galileo needs only one small part to perfect the telescope so you can look through it and see the universe the way he does. He can’t let Wal-mart’s overcrowded aisles distract him, but has to go in and get only what he needs. Then we’ll see things from his point of view. That’s your assignment: Speed shop that overstocked subconscious of yours, snag only those items tagged by the subject you’ve chosen, and leave the rest behind.
9. Memoir is successful when you make your argument. All non-fiction is an argument. Yours may be, “Life is better with a good cat to love.” Prove it.
10. When are you done? You are finished when you have proved your argument (see above) and when something has shifted for you. Memoir must include transcendence. Something must change, or else you are merely reading to us from your datebook. Let us witness that change and we’ll see one of life’s wonders. And when we do, we’ll send it to others to read.
Want to dig deeper? You can, by following my 5-step process to write great memoir.