IF THERE IS SOMETHING THAT FLUMMOXES every memoir writer, it is how to choose memoir topics. As a memoir coach and writing teacher, I hear a lot of “what to write” questions. The dilemma of how to get memoir ideas might be the single thing that most often drives people to read their email, polish the silver or clean their kitchen floors — anything, that is, rather than write. And I get it. Let’s see if I can keep you in the chair.
Memoir, of course, is not about you. It’s about something, and you are its illustration. And now that I’ve reminded you of that, I know, too, that you are ready to dash off to put on a pot of soup or load up the washing machine. You’re eager to do pretty much anything but write. Instead, let’s move you on to a foolproof method for choosing what to write about.
How to Choose a Memoir Topic
The very best way to motivate you to bring a piece of memoir to the page is to have a personal/professional interest in the memoir topic. What do I mean by that?
Maybe you have elderly parents and maybe you worry about the myriad things that can go wrong with their care. Perhaps you’d like to write about the process of living within that experience. What to do? Ask yourself: What do I know about caregiving? Then write down all that you’ve learned in the experience. Literally, make a list of what you’ve learned along the way. Hold onto that list. We’ll get back to it in a minute.
Perhaps you are someone who has lived with twelve dogs over the years, all of whom have informed you in some way about how to live your own life. This would make a fine memoir idea. Make a list of what your dogs have taught you.
Maybe you are someone who is struggling to learn to meditate and has a devilishly funny sense of humor about how very bad at it you are. How have you struggled? Write down the process. Do you garden, or are you the CEO of a company who, long-ago, wrote and has enforced a policy of zero tolerance on sexual oppression in the workplace to great success? Have you adopted kids out of the foster care system or lost a child of your own?
That is, what do you do and what has it taught you?
No matter what your family background, who you are or what you do for a living, you have learned things in those experiences. Making a list of each of the things you have learned in each of these experiences is a great way to reassure you of the two things you need to write memoir:
- That you have a linear tale that moves from one moment of “aha!” to the next.
- That these “aha!” moments, taken together, constitute an area of expertise.
Everyone has hundreds of areas of expertise. Therefore, everyone has memoir topics from which to write. Even you.
How to Use Your Area of Expertise to Write Memoir
Memoir topics live in your everyday life. This is where the phrase “writing what you know” is defined. People throw around that phrase but rarely stop and think about it. Let’s stop and think about it, shall we?
The key to writing memoir is to write from one area of expertise at a time. That’s right: one at a time. This reality is something that defines my brand of teaching memoir, and the longer I teach it and the more people I meet, the more certain I become that I have zeroed in on the key to freeing you from writing too big, too broadly and too much. Choose your memoir topic based on something you know after something you’ve been through, and you will be writing what you know. See how this works? You write what you know. Write from one area of expertise at a time, no matter if you are writing a blog post, a personal essay, an op-ed, or a book-length piece of memoir.
What Are Good Examples of Small Memoir Topics?
Here’s a good example. A reader wrote into my blog recently, asking why I always recommend one, single book to anyone who wants to learn to write memoir. That book is Caroline Knapp’s, Drinking, a Love Story. The reader did not much like the book and did not see much there for her to learn. I get it. The book is small. It’s sticks to one topic. It’s written solely from one area of Knapp’s expertise. And that’s what I see in it. You may not like the topic. It may feel too narrow. It may not be a voice you like or aspire to. But it does its job. Period. In that, it is perfect.
Is it my favorite book or all time? Not even close. But it has the perfect structure, voice and construction to get the job done. It’s also worth mentioning that it was a New York Times bestseller, meaning that many thousands of others found something in it, as well. For me, it’s set apart by its tight frame, structure and voice. She sticks to her knitting, that writer, and the result is a lesson in how to write a book.
Caroline Knapp looked through the lens of women and alcohol and wrote a bestseller. And when she went to write her next book-length memoir, she looked through the lens of someone whose long-time association with dogs had informed her in others ways — which led to the publication of Pack of Two, also a fine piece of memoir. And had she not died tragically young, she might have written eight or nine book-length memoirs, all from one area of expertise at a time. When she died, her dear friend, Gail Caldwell, the Pulitzer-winning critic for the Boston Globe, wrote a memoir from the area of expertise of their friendship. It’s a gorgeous book entitled, Let’s Take the Long Way Home.
What is Your Area of Expertise When Writing Memoir?
What do you know after something you have been through? Remember, you can list these “aha!” moments, literally noting each step of the way along your transcendence to becoming a loving and reliable caregiver, a person who can meditate or someone who lets her dogs teach her how to live. These are the things that you learned. Then, after you’ve listed them, you’ll put them in the order in which you learned them, and you will have yourself a perfect outline for your piece or book. But all that is for another post. Long before you start writing, you must concentrate and choose a solid memoir topic.
The Three Characteristics of Great Memoir Topics
There are three characteristics of a great memoir topic. Here they are:
- It must be true.
- It must interest you.
- You must be willing to learn along the way while writing about it.
I know you get the first two of these, but let’s walk through them anyway, since while they sound simple, they are not.
The phrase, “it must be true,” means that you cannot choose a topic that makes you sound better, smarter, keener, more strategic, better looking, funnier or any of the other things (thinner!) than you are. You must be willing to share what you know, and part of that will be the struggle you strategically plotted to get through what was at stake.
That it must interest you should need no explanation, though it does. If you choose to write a book, you may be on this topic for three years, from plotting your book structure to the date of publication. Then, if you are very lucky, you may be out promoting it for another year. That being the case, don’t pick a dull topic, or one you cannot sustain for that length of time. All too many people do this, choosing something that either wears them out, isn’t of sufficient interest, or simply wears thin upon any real examination. What can sustain your long-term interest?
The other extreme is from those people who have death-defying stories and think that a plot-driven book will sustain the readers. Don’t fall prey to this. Even Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s mega-bestseller, was about something serious, big and universal, all the while being illustrated by her walk of the Pacific Crest Trail. Something major was at stake. That’s why people love that book. Believe me, few of us has a plot-driven piece on us that is enough of a read to sustain anyone else’s interest.
Let me share with you some of what I’m thinking about these days. I am deeply interested in just how much help one person can be to another. This is an inquiry I developed after being deeply present in the process of a dear friend’s death, something he and I discussed at length for years before as he made his plans. He wanted to die at home, with little fuss. And, remarkably, he did. I am also interested in how dogs do things for people that people cannot do for themselves. I am tremendously drawn to all stories where people unlearn what they learned in their family of origin and pick up clues on how to live along the way from popular culture, neighbors and mentors — any way other than how they were raised at home.
What interests you? Did you have a championship season on your local baseball team from which you’ve taken all the lessons you’ve ever needed to succeed as a CFO of your company? Bring it on. Did you find nearly poetic life-advice in a few, choice words spoken to you by your mother’s hospice nurse? Write it. Did something in your early life of great significance only recently come home to roost as you approach your seventies? Tell us. See how each of these travels with both a theme and some action? Find yours. How? Remember to ask yourself this: “What did I learn after the thing I went through?”
Now to that last of the three characteristics of a great memoir topic. Too many writers go into a piece thinking they know all they need to know and thinking that they have reached a conclusion about what they learned and can learn no more about their own story. They are wrong. One hundred percent wrong. As you write, you will learn about yourself. Be ready for this. Be ready to change your book’s argument to accommodate this glorious process of self-knowledge. And be ready from the get-go, choosing a memoir topic that will allow for some self-realization.
Of course, memoir topics and ideas abound. But we mostly miss them. All around you the world is providing memoir topics and memoir ideas every single day. Really. All you have to do is look.
How to Get Memoir Ideas From the News
All good artists do two key things:
- Keep aware of what’s going on in the world around them.
- React to what’s going on around them.
How to do this? Read the newspaper. Period. TV news won’t do it, and neither will your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter stream. I love social media, and use it, but it is not designed to make you a better writer. What TV channels you choose and what social media you follow are reflections of what you’ve chosen to provide you with information you find to be similar to your point of view. Go broader. If you have no time to read a daily newspaper, make time for the Sunday edition of a large, national publication and read whatever they provide that give you the week in review. Read those Op-Eds and opinion pices and you will instantly be informed about what’s going on in the world and what some people think about it. You don’t have to agree. You have to be informed and react.
Think that is too tough an assignment? Let me give you an example of how it’s done. Take a look at this New York Times piece by Deb Perelman, a food writer and cookbook author whose work I follow and whose books I own. Deb’s brisket recipe, by the way, is the only brisket recipe I use. She describes herself as a “home cook,” meaning she has produced her remarkable volume of copy and food — to date, two cookbooks and 1,400 recipes — from the tiniest of New York City kitchens. I had one of those kitchens, the entire floor plan being about the size of the kitchen island I now live with in upstate New York.
In her piece, Deb Perelman writes about the many good reasons to never cook at home. While reading it, keep in mind that successfully cooking in a tiny NYC kitchen is her area of expertise. It will help educate you in how to choose your own topic from your own area of expertise.
The world of memoir writing is waiting for you to step in and participate. Choose your memoir topic and work on your memoir idea, never forgetting that you already have on you all that you need to write. You have areas of expertise. Write from them. You have learned things from everything you’ve done. Let us read what they are.