21 Oct 64. Is Your Life Memoir-Worthy?
Not everyone feels called to write a memoir, but if you do, it’s perfectly normal to wonder whether or not you have enough of a story for a whole book. (Spoiler alert: everyone does if you know how to find it.)
In this episode, we explore what defines a memoir. Then we consider 5 questions to ask before you decide whether or not to write a memoir.
These questions will help you get real about why you want to tell your story in a book and also help you get into the process with your eyes and heart wide open.
If you’re wondering if you have enough story for a memoir, or any non-fiction book, follow me on Instagram @candiceldavis and DM me to talk about it.
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Jump-Start: A free guide to help you jump-start your nonfiction book.
Hey there and welcome to Nothing but the Words. I’m your author coach, Candice L Davis.
I hope your week and your writing are going well.
Even though I’ve been writing professionally for more than 2 decades now, I still study writing.
Whether I try to or not, I learn something from every book I read—and I read a lot.
But I do also intentionally study.
Recently I was looking for a new book on memoirs, and I stumbled across an article that said something along the lines of not everyone’s story warranting a memoir.
I had to really stop and think about that.
Let’s start with the fact that a memoir isn’t the same as an autobiography.
An autobiography is generally an account of a person’s whole life, written by that person.
In my opinion, very few people should write an autobiography.
It’s rare that we, as readers, want to follow a person’s life from the moment they’re born until they write their book.
Side note: I know how tempting it can be to start your memoir with when and where you were born. Feel free to write that part. Then cut it before you go to print.
Autobiographies, like biographies, are usually best reserved for those people who leave the world changed in a hugely impactful way.
They’re for people who, for better or worse, change the landscape of a culture.
They’re for the people whose lives we want to study in detail to get an understanding of how they became the great leaders or transformative artists or even the murderous evildoers of their time.
Remember, a memoir isn’t meant to be your life story.
A memoir tells the story, from your point of view and based on your recollection of events, of a season in your life or a theme that has occurred and re-occurred throughout your lifetime up until this point.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe everyone should write a memoir either.
But if you have the desire to write a memoir, then at some point you have to ask yourself the question: “Is my story enough?”
I have yet to meet anyone who hasn’t had an experience or a season of life that was memoir worthy.
Remember your memoir isn’t meant to be your life story.
That’s why many memoirists write several memoirs over a lifetime—they mine different areas of life.
You could write a memoir of your childhood spent going on auditions because your father wanted you to be a star.
You could write a “coming of age memoir” that delves into your adolescence and young adulthood and shows us the moment you left behind the innocence of youth.
You could write a memoir about the one summer you spent abroad during your college years and how you spent more time in bars and cafes than you did in the classroom.
You could write a professional memoir that covers a pivotal time in your career.
You could write a parenthood memoir or a memoir of your time spent caring for your aging parents.
The possibilities are endless.
Even if you look at your life’s story and think, “Hey, it’s actually pretty ordinary,” I’m betting you still have moments that could make a memoir.
If you have any doubts about whether your story is memoir-worthy, I invite you to consider the following 5 questions.
Question #1. Are you willing to tell the truth about yourself—even if it’s unflattering?
I’ll tell you straight up, I’m not. I don’t like to say “never,” but in all likelihood, I’ll never write a memoir.
There are just certain parts of my life I prefer to keep private, and many of those parts would need to be in my memoir in order for it to be really good.
I’m not saying you have to share all your sins and secrets to write a good memoir—definitely not.
But a memoir that presents a sanitized version of who you really were isn’t going to be good.
Readers can smell that kind of disingenuousness wafting from the pages.
If you want to write a book that makes you look like a saint, then skip the memoir.
But if you’re willing to be honest about some of your relevant mistakes and bad choices, write on.
Question #2. Can you look at parts of your story with a sense of humor?
We all have parts of our past that just aren’t funny.
Thinking about losing one of my closest friends to a random gunshot that came through the living room window and ended her life while she was watching a telenovela is never going to elicit a laugh from me.
But the best memoirs evoke a wide range of emotions, including humor.
I can look back on the process I went through to buy a wedding dress when I was five months pregnant and laugh now.
It wasn’t funny then. I was a college student. I had less than 200 bucks to spend. And I hadn’t even told most of my family that I was having a baby.
But looking back, and seeing myself at a seamstress’s house while she tries to alter a wedding gown my aunt gave me—a gown which was probably cursed by the way because her engagement ended in a Lifetime-movie sort of way—and the seamstress trying to find a nice way to tell me it’s just not gonna happen is pretty funny.
You don’t have to have humor in your memoir, of course.
But if your story is fairly dark, it’s a breath of fresh air for readers to be able to chuckle with you.
Question #3. Do you own your story?
By that I mean, do you take responsibility for some or all of your story.
Don’t misunderstand me.
We’ve all been victimized to some degree or another, at some point in our lives.
You don’t own that.
And you can definitely share those stories.
Very few people want to read a straight victim story—that’s just depressing.
Obviously, if you’re writing about your childhood, we recognize you had very little control over your life at that time.
But even children find moments of agency, moments of light, moments of laughter.
Just keep in mind that we all have those moments.
We’ve experienced bullying, neglect, and abuse. Many of us have been on the receiving end of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other discrimination.
But that’s never your whole story.
Question #4: What’s different about your story?
There are hundreds of memoirs about immigrating to a new country.
There are hundreds of memoirs about abused kids, bad marriages, and athletes-turned-business-owners.
So what’s different about your story?
This can be a scary question because you might not have an answer right away.
You might not discover your distinguishing factors until after you’ve done quite a bit of writing.
But the good news is that it’s always there. Always.
Question #5: What have you learned from your story?
When you write your memoir, you’re reflecting on a period of time in your personal or professional history.
As readers, we want to know what you actually learned from those moments.
You don’t have to be a guru or have all the answers on the topic, but we do want to know what insights you gleaned.
We want to know how your experience changed you—and a large part of that includes not only what you learned but how you apply that knowledge.
Not everyone is called to write a memoir.
But in my experience—and I have a lot of it—everyone can find a memoir in their lives.
As you peruse your life for that material, ask yourself those 5 questions.
- Are you willing to tell the truth about yourself—even if it’s unflattering?
- Can you look at parts of your story with a sense of humor?
- Are you ready to own your story?
- What’s different about your story?
- What have you learned from your story?
That’s all for this episode my friends.
For more writing tips and inspiration, follow me on IG @candiceldavis. And if you’re wondering if your story would make a great memoir, DM me and let’s talk about it.
Thanks for listening to Nothing but the Words. I’m Your Author Coach, Candice L Davis. And I’ll see you next time.
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