When I first got the idea for a memoir about growing up in a small town in the Midlands and going off to a college in London at the age of twenty-one, I thought I knew what the story was. But I was wrong. It took me nearly three years and countless drafts before I discovered this.
This was because I was making the mistake many first-time memoirists make. I was simply recounting a chronological list of key events in this particular period of my life. What I hadn’t managed to do was work out what the story was really about.
And what I hadn’t understood was that I wasn’t the story. I was simply an illustration of the theme. As Marion Roach Smith says in her excellent book The Memoir Project, when you realise that a memoir is about something bigger than you, something universal, you make room for the reader.
A memoir is not an autobiography. A memoir only deals with a section of your life, not all of it. This could be a week, a month, or a number of years. In recent years, for example, there’s been a clutch of memoirs about people emigrating to France or Spain, buying an old property, and trying to integrate themselves into the local community.
Your job as the writer is to select key stories in your life that reflect the theme of the book and push the story forward. What you leave out of a memoir can be just as important as what you put in. All the time, you have to ask yourself, what is the point of this particular story, what does it illustrate, and what is it telling the reader?
If you fail to do this, then you risk boring the reader and becoming like that guy who stands at the end of the bar boring everyone to death with long anecdotes or episodes from his life that have little relevance to anyone else.
When you write a memoir you are constructing a story, and you have to decide what materials to use and what materials you don’t need. Some of those materials can be saved for another memoir.
Bill Roorbach in Writing Life Stories says, “Memoir is a report to others from foreign territory”. He adds, “But always, the reader becomes a stand-in for the I, and the life of the I becomes the life of the reader, so no matter who is speaking, the successful true story is always the reader’s story on some level.”
So remember, a memoir is not just about you; it’s also about the person who reads your book.