When I’m deep in my writing cave, I usually quit reading deep introspective things and read Harlequin romance novels and other quick fiction. It’s a relaxation for my brain from all the work I’m doing. This time around, I was devouring research for my book instead. My brain became overloaded with ideas. I lost sight of what my book was supposed to be about and what I was trying to do. I hit stop on all my “research” and decided to return to a much beloved genre for one last non-fiction hurrah before I ceased all communications: memoir.
When I was reviewing the romantic fiction I read, I gave a simple rubric for what a story had to have to be for me. I also have one for memoirs. It’s a short set of criteria of what I believe a memoir should do. As I am adding elements of memoir into my current work, I won’t be reading anymore for a while, but I want to tell you why the last one I read was excellent and convince you to read it if you haven’t. I also want to recommend others in the genre I’ve read and loved over the years.
Memoirs are books based on the lived experiences of the author. They usually cover specific events, periods of time, or struggles/experiences with a certain disease, etc. They can be funny, heartbreaking, introspective, poetic or prosaic. The style is as varied as the authors who work in the genre. This criteria applies to all kinds of memoir for me. I haven’t included specifics on funny memoirs, childhood memoirs, memoirs about medical conditions, etc. This list isn’t an exhaustive list of what makes a memoir great, but a rubric for how I judge if a memoir was a good one.
So let’s dig into what a great memoir has to do (in my humble opinion):
- Be honest with the ugly. Every memoir I’ve read and loved shares the characteristic of not shying away from sharing the hard stuff. Whether detailing a painful moment where addiction has made them do something awful to someone they love or sharing an unflattering truth they learned about themselves while recovering from a traumatic injury, memoirs need to honestly portray their subjects. Not everything is good or bad in life; some things are a dull, lifeless gray. Others are downright ugly. The sign a memoir is going flat for me is when I feel as if the author is holding back and not being truthful with me.
- Be so specific it can’t help but to be universal. The best memoirs I’ve read have been written by people with wildly different experiences than I’ve had in my life. On the surface, I have nothing in common with their story. But within the pages of the book, against all odds, I see myself. Somehow, by sharing the specifics of their unique situations, they manage to tap into a universal experience. I’ll give you an example. Many women the world over connected with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. I’m sure most of them have never gotten divorced then lived in three different countries over the next year on a journey to find themselves. But more than one woman reading could identify with that late night crying on the bathroom floor moment Liz had wondering why she was so unhappy, or with the simultaneous relief and grief of ending a relationship that isn’t working. Maybe they didn’t eat their way through Italy or pray in an ashram in India after their breakup, but they did go on a journey of self-discovery. By sharing her specific experience, Elizabeth Gilbert tapped into a universal feeling, and readers were so inspired by it, ten years later Gilbert’s publisher released, Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It, a book of stories about what Gilbert’s book inspired others to do.
- Drop truth bombs. A classic memoir has to do more than get me to raise my hand and shout “me too!” I need more than the gory details of your life. Every great memoir I’ve read has given me at least one moment where I’ve had to close my finger in its pages to hold my place while I sag back against my seat slack jawed at the enormous truth the author just dropped as casually as a comment on the weather. This is one of the things that makes memoir so good. The author gets to share not just a universal experience, but a truth found in the trenches. The statement itself can be simple, but the effect is a nuclear cloud mushroom in your brain, an explosion that move inexorably outward.
- Perform surgery, not suicide. The best memoirs are akin to self-surgery. The author cuts him/herself open not merely to marvel at the mess of their innards, but to heal themselves. A great work is written in blood, yes, but it’s not a dying declaration; it’s a wounding for the healing of the reader AND the writer. If you aren’t over whatever the subject of your memoir is, if you can’t look back curiously with an eye toward finding the truth, it’s not time to pen a memoir. All memoirist are engaged in excavating the valuable from a lived experience, the thing that’s been bombed or buried but is still intact. I’m not interested in those who want to make a spectacle for sympathy.