“When you start reading in a certain way, that’s the beginning of your writing.”
Tess Gallagher, poet and essayist
Before you plan your memoir, you need to know which competing titles explore topics like your own. You need to read other memoirs, but particularly, you need to read them in a certain way that will help you write your own.
A would-be author once told me that she didn’t want to read the latest (beautifully-written, bestselling) memoir which explored the same universal theme as hers, because she didn’t want to get depressed that it had already ‘been done’.
Newsflash: every universal story has already been told! But never in the way you can tell it!
Reading other memoirs is absolutely essential if you’re hoping to write one.
Reading literary memoirs around your sub-topic or universal theme will help you clarify where your story sits in line with others that are already in the marketplace. It will also make you a better writer, IF you do it properly.
Here’s how to read memoirs to better plan and write your own.
Your story is unique – even if it’s been covered before. How to find your point of difference:
Before I wrote Love & Other U-Turns, I read a lot of travel memoir.
I loved Penny Green’s When In Rome (Australian girl moves to Italy), and Sarah Darmody’s Ticket To Ride (Australian girl explores America). Another was Sarah MacDonald’s Holy Cow (Australian girl in India) and I absolutely adored Almost French by Sarah Turnbull (Australian girl moves to Paris).
I knew that I wanted to write a travel memoir, but all I could find by authors from my point-of-view (Australian journalist) were memoirs about going overseas, and my story was all about a life-changing trip around Australia. It wasn’t another country, but it might as well have been, for the cultural and physical changes I went through in different parts of certain states and territories.
Finally, I realized that what made my idea different was what made it unique.
I never did find a memoir about a female hitting the dirt roads of Australia in that peak baby/mortgage/settling-down time. I read about exciting female adventures, but none were in our own country: Australia.
So I wrote it.
Your memoir, like your life, is the story that only you can write in the way you can write it.
When I was writing A Letter From Paris, my main problem was finding a memoir that was also a biography. I couldn’t find a family memoir that covered my exact conundrum, so I located everything I could that was written about hidden stories in the family line (one of my memoir’s key themes). I knew i needed to expose myself to as many ways the complex family story could be told, to see a way to tell my own. This is why it’s so important to write your synopsis before you write your memoir. This will clarify your universal themes and where you can start looking for similar titles to research.
I read Poppy by Drusilla Modjeska, Searching for Charmian by Suzanne Chick, and A Fifty Year Silence by Miranda Richmond Mouillot. I also re-read WILD because it covered grief, another topic I explore in my memoir. Reading other memoirs in my sub-genre was absolutely essential for helping me outline the complex tale and see the many ways it could be done. And how I could do it differently.
How to find literary memoirs to unlock how to approach your story
- Find three memoirs which have a style, topic or theme that you’d like to explore in yours.
TIP: Search for ideas in the biography section of bookshops or Amazon under Literary Biographies or Literary Memoirs – then search under the sub-category you’re interested in (eg. Travel memoir / family memoir / historical memoir). By searching under literary memoir, you’re also seeing the most stylistically well-crafted versions of each sub-topic, too.
- After you’ve read each book once (for enjoyment!), you’re going to read each book a second (quick) time like you work at a publishing house and you want to give an assessment. Comment on the following:
How would you describe the style or voice of the narrator? How does the main character change from beginning to end and how is this revealed? How does the setting affect the story? What are its main themes? Jot notes next to the title of each memoir in your writing journal.
- Now, write down what you loved and didn’t love about each one of your memoirs – it could be as small as a particular word the author uses to describe an experience to the way the story started (or took too long to start). What parts did you feel were unnecessary? What did you wish was explored in more detail?
- Once you start really dissecting the uniqueness of each of your chosen memoirs, you’ll see the opportunity you have to write a book that’s never actually been written before – even though the topic will certainly have been covered numerous times over.
- Sum up the major theme or lesson of each memoir in one sentence. Write it in your journal.
- For each memoir, look at how the ‘quest’ or challenge the main character faces, shifts from the beginning to the centre of the novel. Usually, the hero(ine) thinks they want something, but in truth, they really want something else. The first part of the memoir explores what they think they need, and then some sort of transformation occurs and they accept what they really need to be striving for, which forms the secondary (main) quest of the book. Jot down your ideas about the first quest and the real quest for each of the authors.
Now that you have your notes, you can think deeply about what you want to cover and do differently in your book. You can start to map out ideas for your memoir plan like how to approach the chapter intros, sentence structure and even the structure of the story and when to reveal key pieces of information. Look at the moments when you were really gripped by the story and analyse the structural points that took you there. Reading memoir like a writer can really improve your memoir plan. And it’s also really inspiring!
Have you read any really great literary memoirs on your topic, sub-topic or theme, lately? Let me know in the comments!