Q: “I wrote a memoir, but it is lacking. Agents tell me it’s too close to autobiography, and that’s where their feedback ends.”
A: Without looking at your memoir—which I hope can feel appropriately impersonal!—let me suggest a few possibilities…
1. It may be all about you
On one hand, a memoir is all about you. On the other hand, it can’t be all about you. (Unless it’s really just for your eyes. Or for your family.) For a published memoir to succeed, it needs to be all about the reader.
A memoir is all about the reader when:
- Sentences are sculpted using rich engaging language.
- The narrative employs principles of good storytelling: narrative arc, robust characters that the reader cares about, conflict, resolution, etc. The writing is so compelling that the reader doesn’t want to put it down.
- The reader is able to make connections to her own experience, even when her experience is wildly different than the author's.
2. It may tell too much
An autobiography—of a President or a pop star—is meant to be comprehensive. It seeks to answer all the questions a reader will have: What was President Lincoln’s SAT score? Was Beyonce in a church choir as a child? Ideally, it tells the story of a person’s life from birth until the present.
A memoir doesn’t attempt to offer that systematic account. Rather, it shows the reader a “slice” of the author’s experience. It uses the best storytelling techniques to gift the reader with a beautiful story.
3. It may lack a clear theme
A mark of the best memoirs—The Glass Castle, Kisses From Katie, Angela’s Ashes, Running With Scissors, Night—is that there’s a clear theme woven throughout the text. The authors don’t attempt to tell everything. They develop a clear theme and “deliver” on it in every chapter.
Do any of these inform the weakness of your memoir? The wily thing about memoir is that it's difficult to be objective. Mine, The Girl in the Orange Dress: Searching for a Father Who Does Not Fail), benefited greatly from the keen eye of a wise editor, Cindy Bunch.
the tip: Have a writing colleague, friend, or relative read your manuscript and ask them to consider these 3 possibilities as they read. Then authorize them to be brutally honest!
If you've written a memoir, or are writing one, what's been your "growing edge"? Or what's your unique challenge?
Develop your craft; serve the reader,