How do you decide what stories to put in a memoir?
Memoir writing is some of the most powerful writing out there. I think of heart-wrenching books such as Twelve Years a Slave (Solomon Northup) and The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls). I think of side-splitting books like Bossypants (Tina Fey) and Dear Girls (Ali Wong). I think of inspirational books like Eat, Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert) and Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance).
But turning your own life into a beautiful, hilarious, motivational book—it’s not an easy task. It’s overwhelming: what do you choose to put into a memoir? You can’t put every detail in. Even for a young person, that book would be way too long. How do you know what’s interesting to a reader?
These are great questions: they are questions you’ll think about throughout the entire writing process. Unfortunately, there’s not a rulebook to follow.
But don’t worry, we have a few thoughts. Here are three tips to help you know what to keep in and what to cut out of your memoir:
How to decide what stories to include in a memoir:
(1) Think of your connection to your reader
People often connect over common experiences: a place they grew up or a profession they went into. But what happens if your story is uncommon? Not everyone has climbed Everest and not everyone teaches at a Catholic school for girls. It is often the unique parts of our stories which motivate us to write.
We love an uncommon story. The key, here, is to tap into the feelings, thoughts, and questions which underlie the experience: these are the relatable pieces. The sadness, fear, wondering if you’re good enough—all of these, readers will connect with.
Find stories which connect with deeply human questions and emotions.
(2) Choose one big story
One helpful tactic to help make all of your stories “work” in a memoir is to choose one “larger” story: your divorce, your career, your hike, or your time in college, for example. If you try to tell too many big stories, your reader will lose interest.
Once you choose one big story, some of your anecdotes will fall by the wayside. Let them. If they are not relevant for the big story, you can save them for another memoir. Don’t be afraid to skip years or large sections of your life: focus on the one, main story.
(3) Have a point for every smaller story
After you choose one, big story, identify smaller stories within that big story. When deciding which smaller stories matter for the big story, ask yourself, what is the purpose of this story? What point does it demonstrate? How do I (the main character) change in this story?
If you have trouble answering these questions, so will the reader.
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