Genre Lessons: Memoir

Camera, pen, and diary. I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading memoirs. The biggest takeaway I have from the memoirs I read is to make sure you know the scope of your story. Some memoirs span much of a person’s life (Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World); others focus on one’s childhood (Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming), or a single year (Rachel Bertsche’s MWF Seeking BFF), or a season (Cheryl Strayed’s Wild). Some choose a theme or topic and explore events surrounding that (Maya Angelou’s Mom & Me & Mom). What they don’t do is detail every event in the writer’s life. They have a focus.

Every character, whether real or invented, has a history. No matter what genre you’re writing, it’s important to know as much of your characters’ histories as possible. But if your story is about a twenty-year-old part-human cyborg trying to stop a terrorist attack, readers don’t need to know about his sixth-grade science fair project. (Unless that project will somehow stop the terrorists.) I write a lot of backstory when I’m drafting, including pages of characters’ journal entries and scenes that take place before the story starts. Sometimes I’ll try to work those scenes in as flashbacks, but I almost always end up cutting them or reducing them to a quick line or two. Because as much as I loved getting to know my characters better, readers aren’t going to care about things that aren’t relevant to the plot. Every scene needs to drive the story forward. That means you may skip weeks or even years in a single paragraph, if nothing relevant happens to your characters in that time frame. As long as you make it clear when everything takes place, your readers will follow.

Another thing I learned from reading memoirs is that good memoirs are good stories, not just lists of events. Even after you’ve polished your book so that only the relevant scenes are in it, those scenes have to connect to each other. Transitions are important; if you end a chapter with the hero running from the bad guys, don’t start the next chapter with her worrying about a different problem. (You can introduce that problem later in the scene, but make sure the focus is on her running at the outset.)

If you’re struggling with a character arc or a character-driven story, take a look at what some memoir writers have done. How did they portray their own changes and growth? How did they show their struggles? How did they move the story forward? And what details or events did they gloss over to keep the story moving?

Have you read any good memoirs recently? What writing lessons did you learn from them?

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