Writing Short Memoir

The editor of the North Seattle College Continuing Education blog interviewed me about writing short memoir. This post originally appeared in October 2016. Reprinted with permission.

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The Story You Tell: Writing a Short Memoir
By Cole Hornaday

Margaret Atwood once said, “Storytelling is part of being human — you can’t separate it from being a human being. Whether you call it ‘professional storytelling’ or not, everybody is telling a Story of My Life to themselves all the time. So how you tell a story, how many pieces you tell the story in … all of these things are old — it’s just that we think of new ways to distribute them.”

Telling the Story of My Life is one thing, but getting down to the brass tacks of sharing it in print is another thing entirely. Writing a Short Memoir instructor Christine Dubois hopes to set writers on a path to telling their own story in a way that’s insightful, carefree and beneficial to both the writer and the reader. “Memoir is popular for good reason!” says Dubois. “Readers love to share in and learn from the writer’s experience. They’re looking for knowledge, inspiration, and the comfort of knowing someone else feels the way they do.”

For those contemplating writing a memoir, but dubious about it being worth the time and effort, Dubois asks you consider how others might benefit from your experiences and insights. “Writing about your life gives you a chance to reflect on and learn from your experiences,” says Dubois. “That alone is great for personal growth! It also gives you a chance to connect with and share your learnings with others, whether that’s through sharing with family members, posting on a blog, or being published in a popular magazine.”

Since a memoir can illuminate so many kinds of experiences, it falls to the writer to first consider who they wish to reach with their efforts. “It’s important to keep your audience in mind as you write” says Dubois. “If I’m writing for birders, I can mention the name of a rare bird and know they’ll be able to picture the bird and understand the excitement of finding it. If I’m writing for a general audience, I’ll need to provide more background information. So it’s important to consider what your readers know or don’t know.”

The writer will also want to consider what publishing outlets will best connect to their intended audience. “Considering your audience is also important in publishing/selling your memoir,” says Dubois.  “Most magazines are aimed at a niche market. If your story is about having a baby, it would fit into a new parents’ magazine; if it’s about running your first marathon at age 65, it would be a good match for a magazine for runners or for seniors. The same is true for blogs or websites.”

Which brings us to the most challenging aspect of memoir writing: choosing the story you wish to tell. How do you go pluck one particular circumstance or event from a lifetime of experience deem it worthy of being shared with the world? “We all have so many things to write about. Sometimes it’s hard to narrow it down,” says Dubois. “Another challenge is deciding what you want to say about your experience. A memoir is more than ‘My Vacation in France.’  It’s telling us what you learned, what challenges you overcame, how you’re different now. So even a reader who has never been to France can relate to your story.”

Dubois says the best stories to share through a memoir are those that deal with big choices, a transition or turning point in one’s life and how the writer negotiated it. “It doesn’t have to be dramatic—‘I sold all my belongings and moved to Africa to help save starving children,’” she says. “But it should show a new understanding or different way of looking at something. For example, ‘Learning that some of the kids in my son’s second grade class didn’t have enough to eat gave me a whole new understanding of poverty in the suburbs and a determination to do something about it.’”

For Dubois, memoir writing is some of the most powerful you might ever dare to attempt. “I hope they’ll experience the power and magic of writing about their life experiences. And come away inspired to write more. As I like to say in class: ‘Why write about your life experiences? Because you’re the only one who can.’”

To read recent posts from the CE blog, click here.