Writing Matters #3 - Memoirs
Where memoirs used to be the realm of ageing politicians or artists, the expansion of the concept of privacy in recent decades has increased their numbers. Nowadays one finds a wide range of first-person testimonials, whether they stand on their own or to illustrate successful habits/realisations.
We write, then publish, that which we want to read. It only follows that since we have suffered in order to learn how to better our lives, we consider these events to be necessary for others to know about. Just like a parent, we want to offer a shortcut to wisdom.
However, most often a parent telling their children about their mistakes will simply end in a teen eye-roll, a huff, a repeated mistake. Similarly, many life accounts getting published end up being dismissed as soon as they are read. The authors are so keen to tell their story, they forget the interests of their readership.
Why does this happen, and why does it matter?
We all learn from our experiences, which are largely similar across the globe. It is this shared quality of human experience that makes it a didactic tool. It is a gift which we can share in order to aid others improve their lives. At the same time, by exploring and verbalising our lives, we undergo a certain therapy. This is a very individualistic process, which leads us to see ourselves as unique. It follows that what we go through in life must be unique, as well.
If the author is a truly remarkable individual of the trailblazer, Olympian, intellectual, etc. quality (i.e., whose achievements are far less than the common average in their specific field), then it is fair that their memoir be a retelling of the differences that made them so. If, on the other hand, the author is one of us, with a lovely teaching to share or a curious event to explain, it would befit their book to focus on what makes it relatable.
Individuation is a wonderful exercise for the human being, but deadly to the success of the average memoir. If the author forgets this fine line, they will in turn lose the reader. If they know how to be mindful of their own measure, they will earn sympathetic followers.
Examples at work
This may seem a very non-literary example, but I think one can learn a lot about the use of rapport from The Total Money Makeover. Its author relies on his own experience of bankruptcy and subsequent journey to economic wellbeing as a basis for the programme he proposes. The most powerful element in this, is that he uses personal stories to illustrate each point. When they are his own, he uses self-deprecating humour to bring across he’s just like any other person. When he uses testimonials, he repeatedly leans on the point that these people are everyday individuals who have made a choice. The book is effective because the reader feels strength in that they, too, can achieve their goals.
On the other hand, there is Atomic Habits. The author also uses personal experience to try and build the bridge with the readers, but his case is unusual enough to make it unfamiliar for most people. Added to this, he does not do use his examples consistently enough to be a useful narrative tool. In fact, there is too much of a mix between his own life and other kinds of quotes and testimonies to make it more anecdotal than explicatory or enlightening. The book is strong, but it could be much more so had the author held his own achievement less in awe and expected everyone else’s capacity to be on par.
How can you make sure your work avoids the traps, or how to fix it
Memoir, like mentioned above, comes in two branches. Consequently, there are different steps to fall in each one. However, the one common initial point to keep in mind is: why am I telling people my story? If you keep that answer as your north, many snags will work themselves out.
The guidelines to keep in mind are:
1. Books are written for an audience. Journaling is written for self-therapy. Choose which one you are working on.
2. If you use your story as a learning tool for your readers, make sure you are on the same level with them.
3. Be humble. We are all unique and marvellous, but nobody (really) likes those who come across as thinking themselves better than the rest.
4. Be consistent in your portions of information. Don’t dedicate half a chapter to one aspect, then only a few lines in the next. Balance it out.
5. If you are outstanding, ensure your memoir is outstanding as well. You are then an example of the extraordinary, not a patronising lecturer.
We can all learn from each other. Memoirs can be powerful tools for mutual learning, so long they honour our shared humanity.