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How to Write a Significant Memoir

DL: This is a piece about how to write a significant memoir I published on the LinkedIn blog Pulse. It addresses a major challenge many writer face—at least writers who want to have an audience beyond family and friends.

How to Write a Significant Memoir

That our memoir is insignificant is about the last thing we memoir writers ever want to read about our magnum opus. How do we write a significant memoir?

What separates a significant memoir from an insignificant one?

Family myths figures prominently in a memoir.

A memoir tells the story of a hero’s journey.

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not fame it’s not the scope of the arena of the action. The key to significance lies elsewhere.

When memoir writers set out to record the facts and the dates of their lives, they are doing first-draft work. We’ve all read reviews of memoirs—and possibly read the memoirs themselves—that bemoan how the famous memoirist has not given anything away. The writer has regurgitated info that could be found in newspaper and magazine articles of the time. Other than “I was happy that…” there is little insight to be found.

The reader is likely to find this memoir insignificant.

The more famous and well-known or high achieving the memoirist may have been, the more this may be one of the writing challenges: to go beyond thinking that the facts and circumstances are in themselves significant enough to carry a reader through several hundred pages. (How much more so when the writer is not well known!)

What makes a memoir have significance to the reader?

No matter what you have done—started a successful multi-million dollar business, become the ambassador to the Court of St. James, have been a successful New York Times best-selling author—events are not of themselves as interesting to the reader as knowing the inner work you undertook to get there.

If you think it is the external events, the external facts, that are likely to interest most readers then you will probably write a book that readers will find insignificant. Why?

After over a hundred years of exposure to psychology, what is likely the most interesting to the reader is “the hero’s journey.” The hero’s journey for the modern reader is the interior struggle, the inner work, that one had to succeed at to arrive at external success. It is the inward journey that has led to the outward success. Regardless of what your outward success is or was, it is likely to be different from the reader’s perception of what success looks like for him or her. The business tycoon’s story is not in itself likely to seem interesting to an artist—unless the tycoon’s memoir is imbued with insight into the writer’s hero’s journey.

Invariably what the reader, at least, what the serious reader who is looking for depth, wants to know, is ‘How did the writer of this memoir get to where s/he got to?”

Of course, if you are the writer of this memoir, the circumstances that led to your success are different from what might have led another person. For instance, the individuals that you associated with to achieve success are probably no longer players in the field.

What remains true today, as it did then, was how you approached these people—whether this was in politics in business, or in academe—and how you parlayed these contacts into something that supported your life. There was an interior struggle that you probably had to master: “How do I approach this person?” “Am I capable of doing this task?” “Will this person perceive me as worthy of associating with me?”

It is this struggle that the reader will engage with.

Significance lies in the map of the inner journey

If you proceed to reveal the map of your inner journey, of your inner work, if you approach your memoir with this optic, whether you are famous or whether you are not, you have within you the wherewithal to create correspondence, resonance, with the reader.

Readers read memoirs to be mentored. Write a significant memoir to show the way.

Consider Anaïs Nin, the diarist. When she started to write her journals, she was an unknown woman living in a suburb of Paris. At one point, (and this is choosing only one storyline of the diaries) she had an affair with Henry Miller. At the time, he was also unknown. Are we interested in this affair only because they both eventually became famous (in literature at least) or, are we interested in this account because of the insights that it brought to the description of this affair?

Nin was at this time seeking some vivacity, some infusion of passion in her life. This was missing in her days. You yourself have probably had many instances of wishing that you were more “alive,” that you had more passion in your relationships—whether spouse, friends or colleagues—that you were more somehow fired with more passion.

For instance, imagine going to work every day with a group of people who really functioned as a team, who were committed to collegiality. Every day, what resulted was larger than the sum of the individual contributions of the group members. Every day, something happened that you had no idea would happen when you went in to work that morning. How great would that be to have that sort of passionate interaction in your life?

The Nin journals have continued to interest readers, I think, because in them we find honest statements about the impulses of her soul. That she was an unknown woman in the 1930s is irrelevant. That the unknown person she was having an affair with became famous is irrelevant to this story. What is relevant is that in daring to expose something true about herself—her loneliness, her need for a more passionate connection, the yearnings of her soul—we ourselves can connect with our own feelings of loneliness, of lack of vitality, of yearning. This is the formula by which her journals achieved significance.

Many of us who are writing memoirs will write about something we did or had happen to us that may be unique. We may have been sold into childhood sexual slavery. (My gosh! that is something big.) Yet even something as big as that can end up being boring, can end up being insignificant, if the writer has chosen not to go on the inward journey, has chosen not to show how as a person he or she was able to transcend these dire circumstances to find within the means to become a fully functioning adult person. What we always want from any memoir is a map of the hero’s journey.

In this hero’s journey lies significance

The insignificance of so many memoirs is that they do not dare to “tell-all,” to go inward and reveal the hero’s journey. They remain at the fact level, trying to win reader loyalty by the bizarreness or the uniqueness or the rarity or the fame of the facts. The book wanders through the who and the what and the where and the when of the story. It may sometimes get to the how—which is still not enough.

To write a significant memoir, the writer needs to get to the why, to the deepest why and then go back to the who and the what and the where and the when of the story and some serious rewriting. The story will not remain the same. The writer will finally leave first-draft work.

I assure you the hero’s-journey story—regardless of whether it is about a housewife or a soldier of fortune—will seem significant.

Keep writing and stay in the memoir conversation.

I hope this connects with you.

  • Do you have a question? Please ask it.
  • Have I forgotten something you would like to add? (Please add a comment below.)
  • Have I convinced you to dare more? (I hope so!) Tell me below what you will do now.
  • Are you ready to write a significant memoir? Start with the action steps below.

Action Steps

Reread your memoir.

  1. What have you left out that addresses the hero’s journey? Add it in.
  2. What “yearnings of your soul” have you not written in? Write those in.
  3. What are you afraid of? Write about that in your writing journal.

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2 Responses to How to Write a Significant Memoir

  1. Avatar
    Bob LaRue March 9, 2019 at 10:06 PM #

    Thanks Denís,
    This post really rings my bell. When writing dialogue from 50 years ago, how much “creativity “ should a memoir writer allow oneself? I, for one, can’t remember it all word for word. On the other hand, digging into human interaction without dialogue seems impossible. At some point, I need to quit taking about it and just say it!

  2. Avatar
    Denis Ledoux March 10, 2019 at 12:11 PM #

    I admit it is usually difficult to create dialog for a story that occurred years ago, but dialog in some form can give a story more energy. Here are some of my best suggestions:

    1. Use indirect dialog: “Alice said that I should go.”
    2. Use a micro-quote, ” ‘Yes,’ Alice said urging me to go.”
    3. Make up a quote that you tell the reader is made up: Alice, who was always supportive,

      would have said something like

    , “Yes, you ought to go and see what you can do to make a better future for yourself.”

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