A Memoir Has an Audience in Mind.
While some people decide to write a memoir according to structure—healing memoirs, investigative memoirs, etc—as I wrote in a previous post, others write with an audience in mind. (Writing with structure in mind often calls for writing with audience in mind, also.) Sometimes the audience is of specific people but many other writers, while they do have a specific audience in mind, are really writing to a group according to their interest.
“I want to write for my kids and grandchildren. I want them to know who I was,” one sort of memoirist will realize. While another will think, “I want to my children and grandchildren to know me, too, and I want to place my life in a greater context. I’m hoping to have readers beyond my kin, readers who are interested in a larger picture of what life was.”
So, here we have two generic kinds of memoirs according to the scope of the audience of the story.
1. The Chronicle
A chronicle is writing that focuses on lists— of names, of dates, and of events. Chronicles do not interpret, do not place in a context larger than that of its characters.
Some people write a memoir wishing only to tell the story of their lives as they have lived it. What were the summer days at their grandparents’ summer camp like—the cousins, the picnics, the sleeping late in the morning? What was it like to be in the 11th grade chemistry class? Where did they meet their spouse and what was their wedding day like? How many children did they have? How many homes did they live in?
These writers are recording their lives for their children, their extended family and possibly a few friends. They are interested in who did what when. They are not particularly interested in the bigger picture of their lives—the opportunities and limitations afforded to someone born in their circumstances—nor are they interested in the depth psychology that went into fashioning their hero’s journey—what sorts of deeper motives fired their actions and reactions.
These people are what in the Middle Ages were called chroniclers. Chroniclers were not historians in the modern sense that they did not try to interpret anything. Chroniclers recorded dates; they recalled names; they added numbers—but they did not look for causes or reasons beyond the most basic. (“The king was evil” or “God is good.”)
Modern day chroniclers usually do not need to work with a coach or a professional editor. Their sister-in-law who is “real good at English” and teaches at the local high school is just what they need to check spelling and commas. (Of course a professional can also be engaged for these services but that often seems overkill for what the writer has striven to create.)
2. The Depth Memoir
A Depth Memoir (I’ve just invented the term so don’t go to Wikipedia looking for a definition!) not only records the names, dates, and events but it searches for a larger view of the lives recorded. Such a memoir wants to memorialize the summer camp where the writers spent their summers, AND these memoirists explore how, in those days, their grandparents who had both worked in a textile factory as operatives were able to afford a cottage on the lake. They will write something about the different relationship of income then to land prices or perhaps about how their grandparents owned the cottage with a number of other mill workers—each taking a time share. (I know such a case.) Perhaps these memoirists will also use other occasions to develop a theme of greater cooperation between individuals in another time in our collective history.
The ambitions of depth memoirists include much psychology. They are interested in the hero’s journey—theirs and those of the people in their story. These people want to write larger issues and, to some extent, they succeed in writing the larger issues by including economics, politics, psychology. While these are of no interest to the chronicler, the depth memoirist cannot imagine writing a story that does not explore them.
The depth memorist is well advised to work with a coach or an editor who will push the writing to even greater meaning. An outside reader who has no investment in the text or story other than to explore its possibilities is needed here. The professional challenges the views of the writer and suggests areas s/he has not exploited sufficiently. Perhaps the coach will make links the writer had overlooked or request the writer demonstrate assertions with scenes and actions and dialog. In every case, the book will be the better for the input of the coach or editor. No in-depth memoirist sh0uld attempt to publish without working with either a coach or an editor.
Both kinds of memoirs are worthy of being written.
I would love to have a chronicle of my grandparents’ lives! Oh my! that would be so special. But, even more wonderful would be a depth memoir that would not only reveal to me what they did in 1922 but inform me about how they felt about it. I would also want to know what their regrets were and what they had wanted for their lives when they did whatever they did. How did they cope with the limitations their economics imposed on their ambitions and how did it feel to learn a new language or a new way of life?
Audience is the key to memoir.
The chronicle is a memoir that does not appeal particularly to an audience beyond family. Therein lies its limitation. If grandma is a total stranger, how much do we really want to know about what her beans tasted like? Interesting but will this sort of chronicle carry a stranger—you or me— through 200 pages?
The depth memoir, on the other hand, might tell us about Grandma’s beans but the beans would be part of a setting, of an action, of an historical era. What the writer would really be telling us is about Grandma, about a woman of her generation, and about her personality and about Grandmas’ social class and about her goals in life and whether she chafed under them or not. Because this story would be character driven, we are more likely to want to read on—even if grandma is a total stranger.
The depth memoir—even of an unknown individual—can clearly appeal to a larger audience. The chronicle can only do so to a very limited extent. What it explores is too small to appeal to people who are not friends and family.
I hope you will consider transforming your chronicle into a depth memoir—if you have the least inclination to do so. I know you can can do it.
Good luck writing your memoir and let me know your thoughts on this post.
What can a memoir of an ordinary person read like? I co-wrote my mother’s memoir We Were Not Spoiled with the intent of making it into a statement that fully encompassed my mother’s life but that would be larger than that. Invest in your memoir education and purchase you copy to study how it was written.
We have helped many people whose lives demanded to be recorded but who themselves were not writers to create interesting and well-written memoirs.
We listen to you speak your story. We ask you a multitude of questions. Then we get to work writing. We come back to you with text and you make lots of corrective comments and we ask you a whole lot of new questions. Then, we go back to writing again.
Over time, your story develops into a memoir—one that you have shaped at every stage of the writing process.
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