Since this post is on memoirs, a bit of shameless self-promotion: I’m teaching a memoir writing class in Ephraim, Utah on April 9. Don’t have full details as to where the class will be taught but it is part of Write Here in Ephraim Conference that will include many other wonderful authors and presenters. Stay tuned for details. If you’re in the area and want to know the ins and outs of memoir writing, I’d love to have you attend.
Ever since The New York Times slammed Joyce Carol Oates memoir, A Widow’s Story, there’s been uproar in the widow(er) community about the review with many widow(er)s saying that the reviewer just doesn’t “get” what’s it’s like to be a widow. I haven’t read JCO’s memoir so I can’t say whether or not the book is worthy of the criticism it received. Thanks to a reader’s tip, I read an excerpt in The New Yorker. Though I was impressed with JCO’s prose, I found the telling of the last week of her husband’s life and first few hours of widowhood similar to what you might find on a recent widow blog. And, in my mind, that’s a problem.
Blogs aren’t memoirs. They have a different purpose and audience. When done well, blogs are vignettes that focus on one moment and give the reader some insight into that incident or person. Memoirs have more meat. Instead of focusing on a day or special moment, modern memoirs usually focus on a major event (or series of events) where the author learns something from the experience and shares it with the reader.
Maybe when I read JCO’s work in its entirety, I’ll feel different. But the little bit I read seemed like something lifted from a personal journal. It’s interesting if you know the person but utterly lacking the depth necessary to give the reader insight into losing a spouse. (I’m going to order the book later this week. However if any readers know of any more online excerpts, please email me or leave a note in the comment section below.)
So what does it take to write a good memoir? Five things immediately come to mind. (For those looking write a memoir on a different subject, just replace grief theme with whatever the crux of your experience is about. The suggestions below still apply.)
- Your story needs to be unique. You lost a spouse. So what. Millions of people lose a spouse every year. What makes your spouse’s death and your journey so different that other people will want to read it? You aren’t the first person to walk this path. To get the attention of agents, publishers, and readers your experience has to something unique about their story that makes it stand out from the crowd.
- You need to offer new insight on the subject. Many books have been written on losing a spouse. Most of them might as well be carbon copies of each other. What has your experience/journey taught you that may not be known by those who have written or walked down the same path? For example, most widow(er)s learn that life goes on and they can be happy again after losing a spouse. While that insight may be new to the writer, it’s not an earth shattering concept to most people. To make it worth the reader’s time, you need to offer some insight or unique perspective into death, grieving, moving on, etc. that other people may not have noticed.
- You need to be honest. With memoirs—especially grief memoirs—authors have a tendency to turn themselves look like a tragic hero for going through the experience. They don’t want to make themselves appear human. Big mistake. Even widow(er)s have flaws and make bad decisions. You need to appear just as human as the next person or the reader will feel you’ve been less than truthful and will blow your credibility. With a memoir you never want the reader to feel that way about you.
- You need to know how to tell a story. Good writers know what events to include and what events to leave out of their memoirs. For example, there’s no need to include the funeral of the late spouse unless something happened there that’s important to the story or can offer the reader some bit of insight into yourself or your culture that can’t come out in another part of the story. Otherwise you’re just filling up the book with pointless information and wasting the reader’s time. Good writers also know how to make quotidian events come alive and paint a vivid picture in the reader’s head. (Side note: This is one thing JCO is very good at.) They know how to take an event like death and widow(er)hood and make it interesting to the reader instead of it simply feeling like they’re reading something they’ve read a hundred times before. Being able to do this is a very difficult talent to master.
- Your book needs to appeal to a wide audience. Good memoirs will appeal to their target audience. Great memoirs appeal to a wider audience. If you write a grief memoir and get positive feedback from other widow(er)s, you’ve probably done a decent job writing what it’s like to lose a spouse. However, when you start getting good reviews and feedback from those who have no clue what it’s like to lose a spouse, then you know you’ve written a compelling memoir with the depth and insight needed (see #2) to get people to look at the world I a different way. These are the kinds of memoirs that agents and publishers are interested in.
When I do get around to reading, JCO’s memoir, the above five points are the standard I'll review it against. Once it arrives via Amazon, it goes to the top of my reading stack.