Time to study what works and what doesn’t in a memoir that I couldn’t put down!
I wish I could relax when I read a memoir but I still study them in one or two ways. Not to say that I don’t enjoy the reading! But when I find really great lines and transitions I can’t help but take note. I recently finished My Paris Dream by Kate Betts which was a bestseller when it came out in 2015 and I was struck by how much happened in the first fifty pages. This is crucial, if you’ve read my post on why most memoirs are rejected. Betts achieves a huge transition in those first fifty pages, and the memoir also has a lot to teach about chapter transitions, the heroine’s journey, the villain in memoir and much more. Read on for my study notes on this travel memoir!
Travel memoir is great when you’re grounded
Nothing helps me more when I’m bed-bound than a travel memoir! My Paris Dream took me on a journey away from the torn back-muscle that kept me bed-ridden this week, to a decade in Paris and New York in the 1980s.
I wanted to share some memoir tips I gleaned from this beautiful book, which might help you as you plan and write your memoir.
Loosely, it’s about Princeton graduate Kate Betts’ move to Paris in the 1980s to work as Paris correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily.
Christian Louboutin, Karl Lagerfield, Anna Wintour, Kirsten McMenamy… they all make an appearance.
But what it does so well can teach you lots, too, if you’re working on your memoir.
What sub-category of memoir is it?
My Paris Dream is both a travel memoir and a coming-of-age memoir.
Much like My Salinger Year (also a coming-of-age memoir), which I also adored, My Paris Dream explores the author’s first ‘proper’ job in a ‘foreign’ city – Paris.
If you’re writing a memoir in either of these genres, you might benefit from reading it. If you’re a francophile, or interested in the halcyon days of working at fashion magazines (pre: internet when everything was scribbled by hand, barked into a telewire or faxed!) it’s a dream read. The French version of The Devil Wears Prada, I found the writing much more prosaic.
Memoir lessons from My Paris Dream
The memoir villain
- The villain in memoir is clear and has a purpose.
- The heroine must prove themselves to the villain.
- In their first scene in your memoir, the villain must be clear, obvious, almost larger-than-life
It’s clear, from when Betts starts at WWD that Mr Fairchild is the Villain. But he has a purpose, so we’re invested in him, just like Betts. Akin to the Anna Wintour character of The Devil Wears Prada, it’s clear from the first that Fairchild exists to lift Betts into a new category.
I looked up and found Mr Fairchild staring down at me, hands thrust deep in his pocked, his head tilted back as if to question this imposter who had suddenly landed in his office….. He had a shock of white hair and menacing blue eyes, and wore an impeccable tweed blazer with a bright-blue silk handkerchief tucked into the breast pocket.
The first scene you have with a ‘villain’ in your memoir needs to be memorable. But more than that, through watching Betts grow and learn and perform even greater tasks in her role for Fairchild in Paris, you see the purpose of a villain in story: to show the heroine what they’re capable of, to make them grow.
In the hero’s journey arc, the villain sets a series of tests to see what the hero is capable of. And usually, it’s to teach them what they truly want (which is never the conscious desire at all, but the unconscious desire.)
A lot needs to happen in the first fifty pages
I read this memoir at the same time I was editing a query letter for a writer. I’ve written before about how the biggest mistake publishers and editors see in memoirs is that the author takes too long to enter the ‘special world’ or the central premise of the memoir, in their early manuscripts.
This is all that had ensued by the time Betts entered the ‘special world’ of Paris by page fifty:
Betts has graduated from Princeton, given us a glimpse into her family history, explored her parents divorce and that affect on her decision to go to Paris, her first trip to Paris, the seed of the idea to move there, and then the reluctance to move when a bomb goes off in Paris, she then moves to Paris (and has a difficult living experience), works two terrible contract jobs in Paris, is tempted to return to New York – and then, BAM, the especial-world – of the job at W appears….
- Memoir lessons for the first 50 pages: Keep the reader guessing. Keep the action moving forward. Each time Betts endures another crisis – the bomb, the protests, the awful apartment, the job at the Trib, we’re wondering if she’ll stay in Paris. The central premise of the book – that she’ll create a life in France, the job at WWD – needs to matter as much to us (the reader) as it did to her. By exploring these failed attempts and discouraging experiences, we start to ‘root for’ the heroine and care when she does eventually have a success.
What does this mean for your memoir? Make sure you include some failed attempts, some false starts, some near-misses before the central ‘quest’ in your memoir is begun.
We think Betts’ desire is to belong in France, but it’s not until the crisis point on page 174 near the end of the second act (I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it) that the unconscious desire becomes clear:
I wanted something bigger – a bigger job, a more complex life, a career. The simple French way of life I once craved was closing in on me… Le plaisir vanished.
What this means for your memoir:
Every memoir has a conscious desire and an unconscious desire (I explore this in detail in 90 Day Memoir). It’s not until somewhere near the end of the 2nd Act or the beginning of the 3rd act that the narrator often realizes the conscious desire isn’t the real desire at all.
And then there’s a reversal and the action starts to ‘fall’ as the narrator integrates the lessons and the wisdom of the memoir.
Plant the reader squarely in the timeframe of your memoir
References to Faxes, landlines, even the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and its effects on the fashion industry plants this memoir firmly in the 1980s.
What this means for your memoir:
People want to be placed in the time and space that your memoir’s action took place. Remember in WILD, how Strayed referenced the OJ Simpson trial a few times throughout the book? It gives readers a reference point for their own lives. By referencing things as they played out on the world stage, you help the reader get there, quicker.
Aside from these structural elements of My Paris Dream, I remembered the sense of intimacy you get from reading a really beautiful memoir: it’s a gift. An honour. Someone is inviting you into their memories, their history and their experience.
I loved the opportunity to live this story through her words and it reminded me of how special memoir is, to a reader.
- She relates smaller stories to universal themes (fashion is who a person is, not just frivolous), and universal stories to more personal ones (the office at WWD relates to patterns in her own family: [“In many ways we were a dysfunctional family, all vying for approval from the aloof patriarch. Perhaps that explains my comfort level and confidence at Fairchild…I could handle remote patriarchs…”]
- She only includes back story in how it relates to the central premise of the story. The divorce of her parents is only included in the early pages because it’s relevant to the move to Paris: she wanted to belong, but she was used to feeling unmoored and unanchored to one tribe.
Some of my favourite quotes from My Paris Dream:
“The best teachers impart knowledge through sleight of hand, like a magician.”
“I called Dennis back and spat out the frightful number…”
“We were disrupting a certain creative intimacy…”
…on seeing Karl Lagerfield at work on 29 Rue Cambonne
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Wonderful post with much insight. Thank you. I really benefitted from hearing you talk about the importance of the villains in presenting the hero with challenges, and of presenting the villain up front.
So glad! I always think an interesting villain makes for a better story, too…
I have a question: if you have a truly conflicted individual, who wants two things (one could be conscious, another unconscious), how do you decide which is the “want” of the story and which is the obstacle? And if you have conflicting desires, how do you decide Who is the villain and who is the mentor. For example, let’s say you have a boy who both wants to be a saint and wants to be a sinner. There is one character who encourages the boy to be sexually free and another character who encourages the boy to be sexually “pure”; one character who encourages the boy to be a priest and another who encourages the boy to express his youthful passion. The boy wants both. Any insight will be greatly appreciated. I have been struggling with this story dilemma for years—it seems especially pertinent to coming of age stories.
Hi Peter, I’m not sure if i understand your question. I’d probably need to read the whole book! Villains can also be mentors, but villains are often more menacing and there may be some kind of ‘showdown’ with a villain which doesn’t classically happen with a mentor figure, in memoir.
Both desires are desires, the obstacle is all that comes in between the hero meeting that desire.
All stories exist in that space around antagonism – reaching goals and conflict and being held back and moving forward. I highly recommend “STORY” by Robert Mc Kee, it might help you further. Archetypes can switch and reverse, though. Enemies become allies and vice versa. Hope this helps!