Helping Writers to Rise and Thrive

On Memoir

Despite reports to the contrary, memoir is alive and well.

The memoir “Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel,” leads the Sunday Styles page in the New York Times this week. Another, “Wear and Tear/The Threads of My Life,” graces page 7. About a month ago I finished reading the bestseller “When Breath Becomes Air” (Westport’s own Sybil Steinberg, the former book review section editor for Publishers Weekly, recommended it during her annual must-read talk at the library recently), and I’m still marveling at its mastery.

Each book, I think, carries different but important lessons about memoir:

  • Those kooky people around you make the best characters. Write about them with respect and tenderness. If they make your skin crawl, write about that as well.
  • Find a hook on which to hang your story, whether it’s a hotel full of oddballs, your mother’s fancy clothes and your own, or your quest to become a doctor.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of “place.” When they pick up your book, readers want to imagine what it’s like to live your life. Put them there (think “Angela’s Ashes,” “Wild,” “The Glass Castle,” “Kitchen Confidential,” and more).
  • Read, read, read. While your personal story might be strong, your writing needs to rivet a reader for a couple of hundred pages. If you “don’t have time to read” it is unlikely you will understand what it takes to attract and keep a reader.
  • Believe in your book. Finish it. Send it out. Above that story on the front page of the Sunday Styles section is a photo of the memoir’s author, Nicolaia Rips. She’s 17 years old.

– CD

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