When our children were young, they accumulated so many Lego kits that we eventually filled several Lego bins with the pieces once the kits were taken apart.
Now, what will you do with those pieces? As you get started on your manuscript, there are two approaches:
- Empty out that Lego bin of pieces you’ve been accumulating and start building. There will be a lot of trial and error, but eventually your hands, eyes, and heart will tell you what design pleases you most. The advantage of this method is that, if you spend a lot of time writing whatever comes to you, you will uncover some hidden gems and your book might open up in surprising directions.
- Organize your pieces by color, shape, and size. Then draw a picture of what you want to build and map out what pieces you’ll need to assemble your structure. The advantage of this method is that it’s harder to get stuck because you have a blueprint to follow.
No matter what approach appeals to you, there are two essential questions you’ll have to answer eventually:
- Who is my audience?
- What do I hope my audience will gain from reading my book? See if you can boil this down into one sentence, like, “I hope my readers will learn that even children who have been through poverty and abuse can become resilient, generous adults,” or, “I hope readers will see that kicking the scaffolding out from under everyday life by living wild in the New Zealand bush is the true path to God.” That will be your pitch line to agents and editors.
The word “memoir” comes from the French mémoire, meaning “memory.” So in the simplest sense, memoirs are books crafted by authors remembering and reflecting on their life experiences. However, every great memoir is about something universal that extends beyond the author’s life, and it will be helpful to you—and, later, to your agent and editor–if you can decide ahead of time not only on your message, but on what type of memoir you’re writing.
TYPES OF MEMOIRS
LIFE MEMOIR: Life memoirs offer readers a window onto an author’s individual experiences in ways that will resonate and teach life lessons. Good examples of these are Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen is a twentieth-century classic about a Danish woman’s experiences owning a plantation in Kenya. More recent examples include Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (a female geobiologist’s celebration of science), Susan Straight’s In the Country of Women (about the powerful women who are the ancestors of her mixed-race daughters) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (an exploration of what it is to be black in America).
SPIRITUAL MEMOIR: Each of us has a spiritual belief system, and many memoirs are about how the authors came to find theirs. Check out The Confessions of Saint Augustine, 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper (about dying and coming back to life), and Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s meditations on nature.
CHILDHOOD MEMOIR: Instead of spanning a person’s life, a childhood memoir usually highlights the years of an author’s childhood that were the most formative, and typically involve trauma or struggle. Great examples of these: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and Freckled: A Memoir of Growing Up Wild in Hawaii by Toby Neal.
TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE MEMOIRS: Many memoirs are crafted around an author’s adventures or travels and reveal the author’s transformation through travel. Terrific examples include Wild by Cheryl Strayed, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.
So, what’s in your Lego bin? How do you want to start sorting the pieces? Who’s your audience and what is it that you want them to learn by reading your book?
Answer those questions, and you’ll be on your way to crafting your story.
Next up: Part 2, Time-based versus Theme-based memoirs.