|Two cats who symbolize the difference|
between ... oh whatever. Kitties!
I keep these four ideas in mind as I write my own memoir so I can keep the focus and clean story arc I need. They also help guide me in creating myself as a character on the page.
1. Time Span
An autobiography tells the story of a whole life, whether the writer has lived a long time (Oliver Sacks, Roger Ebert) or not so long (Drew Barrymore). If you want to write an overview of your entire life, including all of the significant events and lessons learned, then you want to write an autobiography.
Memoir can cover any length of time— a life, a year, or a day—and the author’s intent is to tell one, specific story based on one particular theme. Susan Shreve recounts the two years she spent in a polio clinic in the 1950s. Gail Caldwell describes the years she was close friends with Caroline Knapp. Alan Cumming covers his childhood and adulthood, but focuses specifically on how his father’s violence and secrecy affected his sense of self and his relationships.
Unlike an autobiography, the subject of a memoir is limited. It must have one strong thread that focuses the story: a life-changing experience (Wild), a serious health threat (Time on Fire), the challenge of living with a disfigurement (Autobiography of a Face), the experience of living in a particular place for a short time (Warm Springs), how a very close friendship changes the author’s life (Let’s Take the Long Way Home). The best memoirs have a strong, clean focus that energizes and drives the story, regardless of how much time they cover.
3. Emotional Quality
While an autobiography can simply offer engaging and interesting insight into someone’s personal life and history, memoir requires the author to create an emotional connection to the reader. Autobiography might do this; memoir must. The story arc of memoir is based on the protagonist evolving emotionally from point A to point B, and we read memoir to follow this emotional arc, to engage in it, to be moved by it. We want to be with the author’s mind during the story and watch him change. This is how the best literature, ever so subtly, changes the reader.
Great examples include Truth and Beauty, Let's Take the Long Way Home, Coming Clean, and Unbearable Lightness.
In memoir, the protagonist must learn something. The author of an autobiography might describe many things she has learned over the course of her life; but a memoirist focuses on one significant piece of wisdom, whether gained by one event or many. By following the action and emotional life of the author, readers must be able to see what caused this change and the wisdom gained. It could be growing up in a foreign country, ending a relationship, surviving a terrible accident, moving to a new city, seeing a parent after a ten year estrangement, changing careers, or any number of things. As a writer, the key question to ask yourself is: What did I learn from this experience or experiences? Why is this story so important to tell? How did my inner life change and evolve after the event(s)?
Examples: A directionless woman goes on a long hike and discovers she was trying to process the grief over losing her mother (Wild). A writer has a series of dysfunctional, passionate, romantic relationships, and realizes she is subconsciously trying to deal with her parents' neglect (FierceAttachments). A successful man wonders why his emotional life is so chaotic, and after participating in a TV show uncovers deep family secrets that finally bring him some peace. (Not my Father’s Son). A woman struggles with alcoholism and comes to term with her inner demons only after getting clean (Drinking: A Love Story).
If you’re writing memoir and you can keep these four ideas in mind, it will help you stay on track with which scenes you select, which characters you include, and how much time to cover. Focus is key. Find that unifying thread. I think of it as writing an academic term paper—you need to define that focused thesis question, write it in one sentence on a Post-It, and stick it on your computer or notepad.