I’ve had the chance to teach some writing workshops lately, which has forced me to think about my writing process, to remember writing advice I’ve been given, and to remember all the things I tried that haven’t worked.
So I decided to do some blog posts about it. (I’m talking about memoir writing because that’s my forte, but most of these apply to any kind of writing.)
Today we’ll talk about how to ruin your memoir. Then in the next blog post, we’ll talk about how to improve your memoir. If you have a question, or if there’s something I didn’t address that you want to hear about, leave it in the comments section.
Ok. Here we go!
10 WAYS TO RUIN YOUR MEMOIR by Sarah Thebarge
WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY INSTEAD OF A MEMOIR
This means, of course, that you’ll have to know the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. An autobiography is a chronological account of someone’s life, where no single event is given any more importance than another. The only people who should write an autobiography are famous people, because everybody wants to know the details of their lives. If you’re not famous, you should not write an autobiography. Instead, you should write a memoir — which is a book focused on a particular experience or facet of your life.
WRITE A MEMOIR BECAUSE YOU’RE TOO CHEAP TO GO TO THERAPY
A memoir is not a chance to spill unprocessed emotions and experiences onto the page. It’s uncomfortable to read. It will make your audience cringe or, as one of my friends says, get ‘dumb chills.’ That awkwardness distracts people from the story. So do whatever it takes to gain insight and perspective about the events that have happened to you before you try to relay them to others.
USE YOUR MEMOIR AS A SOAPBOX
A memoir is a story. It’s not an op-ed or a diatribe or a piece of propaganda.
At no point should you try to convince your reader of anything. At no point should you go off on a rant.
As my editor once told me, “If you want to preach at people, become a minister. If you want to tell a story, then become a writer.”
BE AS VAGUE & GENERIC AS POSSIBLE
Nothing loses readers faster than cliches and bland vocabulary. For example:
“My boyfriend broke up with me and I was sad that I’d lost the love of my life. But you know what they say, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince.”
[Okay. First of all, if I hear “the love of my life” one more time, my ears are going to bleed. And second, any sentence that starts with, “You know what they say…” will never end well.]
“My childhood was happy.”
[What in the world does that even MEAN? Why was it happy? What happened to you to make your childhood a positive experience?]
BELIEVE THAT WHAT YOU SAY MATTERS MORE THAN HOW YOU SAY IT
One of the biggest problems I see in “Christian” literature is that sometimes authors assume that if there’s value in the message, then they get a free pass on excellence. Just because you’re writing (or singing, or speaking, or acting, for that matter) about Jesus doesn’t mean you can get away with second-rate work. How you tell your story — the effort, excellence, time and technique you use — is just as important as what you’re saying.
WRITE A ONE-DIMENSIONAL STORY
The value of a memoir is not just “hey, this is an interesting story that happened to me.” Because, let’s face it, lost of interesting stories happen to lots and lots of people.
Good memoirs are good because they have a unique perspective on an event, and are able to make connections to broader ideas. They’re able to see their story as a metaphor of a bigger, more universal theme. Just because something unusual happened to you doesn’t mean you should write a book about it!
DISREGARD THE AUDIENCE’S EXPERIENCE OF READING YOUR BOOK
There are some authors who use their book like it’s an open-mic night and they’re subjecting the audience to whatever they feel like saying. If you write without caring about the reader’s experience, it’s probably not going to be a great book. Lazy writing on your part leads to lame reading on theirs.
So. If you want to lose your audience, write lengthy, wordy chapters because you couldn’t be bothered to do edits. Meander through a boring plot because you didn’t want to put the time into crafting a riveting narrative.
But if you want to engage your audience, write the kind of book you’d like to read. In my case, I love short chapters with cliff-hangers, so that’s how I wrote The Invisible Girls, because I wanted the reader to enjoy the process and do as little work as possible to propel themselves through the narrative.
BREAK WRITING RULES
There are times and places to get creative in your writing. There are times to be original and funky. However, there are some basic grammar and writing rules that you should probably not lose in the midst of all your creativity. And there’s a basic body of knowledge that anyone who’s interested in writing needs to know.
For instance, use active rather than passive sentences. (To use an example from high school journalism, instead of “A good time was had by all,” “Everybody had a good time.”)
Also, use the most interesting verbs possible. (Instead of “He ran quickly down the street,” “He sprinted down the crowded sidewalk.”) Here’s a helpful hint: if you find yourself using a lot of adverbs, you probably need to use more descriptive verbs.
There are lots of books that talk about good writing rules, so I’m not going to get into the details here, but you get the idea.
DON’T GET FEEDBACK
I had an aquaintance once ask if I’d critique some of his writing. So he gave it to me, I read it and wrote down some pointers, and gave it back to him. And then I got an e-mail. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m sure nobody else would have a problem with this. All my other friends think my stuff is amazing…”
Here’s the thing. All of us, no matter how long we’ve been writing, have blind spots. There are deficits in our stories, holes in the narrative, better ways of phrasing ideas, and confusing sections that will trip up our readers. We all need some feedback from people who tell us the honest truth about our work. Some affirmation is helpful, but hearing “You’re stuff is just incredible!” all the time is not helpful because it’s not going to help you improve.
So gather some friends whose writing you respect, ask them for feedback on your work, and be humble enough to receive it.
No one believes in your story more than you do, and no one can tell it better. The worst thing you can do is give up, because if you do, your story will never be told.
Put in the work. Rewrite it until it’s as good as it could possibly be. Keep trying. Don’t give up. Believe in yourself.
Your story matters to you, and it matters to the rest of us.
All of the proceeds from my memoir, The Invisible Girls, are going into a college fund for the five little Somali girls I wrote about. You can pick up a copy here!