Monday, August 13, 2012

What Makes a Memoir “Great?”

I just finished reading Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed's memoir about hiking from California to Oregon after the death of her mother sends her life spiraling downward. I'm still aching from the powerful punch of this story, delivered with so much grace and humor that I didn't even see it coming.

This book didn't just knock my socks off. It knocked off my t-shirt, jeans and knickers, too. It's a gripping adventure story that's brutally honest on every emotional level, and I was left open-mouthed with awe by Strayed's brilliant observations about everything from what it feels like to wake up with thousands of tiny frogs hopping on your body to her profound grief over the dissolution of her family.

As a writer, I've been mulling over this book, trying to think about what made this memoir—along with others I've loved by writers like Bill Bryson, Mary Carr, Alexandra Fuller, Haven Kimmel, Peter Matthiessen, Michael Ondaatje, and David Sedaris—rise to the level of art that's good for the soul. Here are a few thoughts:

Make Your Memoir about More than Just You
Unless you're Bill Clinton or Mick Jagger, nobody but your best friend cares about your life story (and she might be pretending). How can you make your memoir compelling? Find something unique about your narrative and focus the book around that instead of navel gazing about your first dog, your last lover, etc. For instance, Haven Kimmel does a brilliant job of this in Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. She broke out big with this book by weaving her hilarious observations of small-town life around her own coming-of-age story. And, in The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen writes about traveling in Nepal and tracking the snow leopard as he asks some of the deepest life-and-death questions common to all mankind. We learn about the flora, fauna, and culture of the deep Himalaya as we follow his spiritual quest and the two narratives meld to create a mystical, timeless read.

Don't Whine.
Enough said.

Do Your Research
Whether you're writing about kayaking through Brazil after your Wall Street breakdown or the summer at Aunt Mary's lake cabin when your father went nuts, do your research. This means reading up on Brazilian history and wildlife or interviewing family members until your memories of that lake cabin become vivid and true. (You'll be amazed by how much your memories differ from, say, your little brother's.)

Be Respectful
Here's the thing: you may have grown up in a dysfunctional family —if you're a writer, the odds are pretty high that this is fact. But writers, no matter how neglected or abused we were in our youth, have an unfair advantage: We have public voices. The people we're writing about often don't. Think long and hard about baring other people's secrets without asking permission.

Be Generous
Okay, so your mom liked to stand on her head naked in the back yard and forgot to pack your lunches for school. It was a tough life! But the point of writing a memoir about it is to show how you resolved conflicts, just like any character in a novel. This isn't therapy. The story has to go somewhere. The best memoirs are those where writers arrive at a place of acceptance and even forgiveness—as Mary Carr, Alexandra Fuller, and Cheryl Strayed do in their books.

Build a Narrative with Tension and Shape
From that first scene, you want to build enough tension into the narrative so that readers are turning pages to find out what happens. Think about the natural start and end points, and what the climax of the story looks like. Each chapter should be shaped like that as well, with its own narrative arc.

Play with Time
Your memoir doesn't have to be chronological. For instance, Strayed does a great job of playing with time, starting the book in the middle of her journey, at a point where her hiking boot literally tumbles off a cliff, then backtracking to where she was before she left. She proceeds on her trip and backtracks many times throughout the book to highlight various high (and low) points in her life story. By the time we finish reading about her journey, we understand why she had no choice but to walk the Pacific coast alone to mend her heart and soul.

Now that, my friends, is a truly great memoir.


  1. Holly, though I don't anticipate ever writing a memoir, I do read many; and this blog post will help me to be a better reader. Thank you!

  2. From Kimberly Gadette: Another great one from you, Holly!

  3. You never know, Katie! I never thought I'd write one, either!

  4. I will definitely keep picking your brain when I go to write Children of Paradise...and my heart shakes at the task. There's not much left in writing that scares me as much as doing this Big Story, that I know needs telling and scares the sh*t out of me to face... I will read Strayed's book becuase you recommend it. ANd hope it doesn't make Children burn so bright I can't finish my new YA!
    So many books to write, so little time. THank you for how you always inspire me.

  5. What a great post. It warmed my soul to know I'm on the right track with my memoir. When I started my memoir about being kidnapped and raped, one of the subplots was the constant conflict with my mom. I struggled with writing the truth and possible hurting my mom--or sugar coating the truth and risk alienating girls out there with mommy issues. So I told the truth about the strained relationship, but later show how we overcame our differences. Since a couple of agents are reading my memoir, I figured I'd better let my mom read it as well--really test if I was able to be both honest and fair. But I told her she couldn't discuss it with me until she read the entire thing. She made it through the story and in the end loved it :) Half way through it she was convinced I hated her though. When she mentioned it to my brother he said, "Well, is she a teenaged girl in the story?" Mom said, "Yeah." Brother, "Well, there you have it." Haha

  6. Hi, Holly,
    Thanks for dropping by my blog. Interesting, not to mention thought-provoking pointers here on memoir writing. I've thought about it once or twice, but haven't had any huge event that would make interesting reading. Who knows what's in the future though.