Five Memoir Writing Rules That May Be Holding You Back — and How to Move Beyond Them

1. Only people who have suffered a terrible trauma or lived a larger-than-life story should write memoir.

The pitfalls of this belief lie on both sides. Often, people who have led bold lives — founding renowned companies, climbingMount Kilimanjaro — think a simple recounting of their adventures, one scene after another, makes a riveting memoir.

On the other side, people who consider themselves to have quiet or “normal” lives hesitate to write memoir because they feel their experiences lack drama. But an artful memoir can be drawn from a “normal” life, while a memoir that recounts one conquest after another without looking beyond the surface events will usually fall flat.

That’s because the juice of memoir is not in the surface events, but in the new understanding the writer moves towards through the process of writing itself — a process of deep observation and self-questioning. The writer’s need to make sense of something she has lived — whether that “something” is as traumatic as nearly being knifed by your mother or as ordinary as getting divorced in Iowa — matters much more than the raw material.

Need proof? Check out the riveting “quiet” childhoods recounted by Jo Ann Beard in The Boys of My Youth, Annie Dillard in An American Childhood, or Vladimir Nabokov in Speak, Memory.

2. Show, don’t tell.

This seemingly simple, over-simplifying advice has hamstrung writers of all genres, but especially writers of memoir. Typically, developing writers interpret this maxim to mean that they should present only scenes and never step in to tell the story. But a story needs a storyteller.

In particular, a memoir needs a strong narrator who breaks scene to speak directly to the reader and provide a vantage point from “now” where we can consider what things that happened “then” mean. If you never allow yourself to tell the story with some distance and perspective, your story will be stuck in the “then,” and your meaning-making efforts will be stymied.

3. Keep the action moving.

Counter-intuitively, moving swiftly from one event to another does not often make for riveting memoir. Sure, profluence — the quality of wanting to know what happens next — can be thrilling. In memoir, confluence — the sense of elements connecting to make meaning — is just as important in keeping the reader engaged. Stopping the action to reflect can be crucial, and the pressure to march from one life event to the next can be deadening. If we don’t understand how the memoirist is making sense of the events as she recounts them, we won’t care what happens next.

4. Be “likeable.”

I’m paraphrasing the novelist Janet Fitch here: Story results from a character’s vulnerabilities being put under pressure. In a memoir, your past self is the character. In order for the reader to relate to your past self — to project her own life vicariously upon the story — the reader needs to see and feel your vulnerabilities.

Those things that cast you in a not-so-flattering light, those things you’d rather not bring up at the dinner table or broadcast in a resume? Those unflattering aspects of yourself turn what would otherwise be a timeline of surface events into an emotionally engaging story, if the writer examines herself with honesty and heart.

5. A memoir should stick with one verb tense.

Have you ever been in a workshop or writing class with the verb tense police? They are the type of reader who tells you that if you use present-tense narration in one section of your book, you can’t use past tense in another. Not true.

It might seem like it would be easier to establish strict rules for tense, but a survey of the memoir field shows that many of the most interesting memoirs vary tense without causing the reader confusion. Sometimes a shift in tense is crucial to establish the storyteller’s perspective, the “then” and the “now.” Check out Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight and Marilyn Abildskov’s The Men in My Country for two gorgeous examples.

6. Throw Out the Rules

Which leads us to how a memoirist can move beyond these rules. Reading is key. Reading widely and deeply in memoir proves over and over that there are no rules to be followed, only artistic choices to be made.

My memoir class Shaping Truth is built on deeply reading memoir excerpts by a wide range of writers, and closely analyzing two great examples, Marilyn Abildskov’s The Men in My Countryand Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals. By analyzing the choices that other writers have made, you will gain the confidence to make your own.

Rules for writing are attempts at shortcutting the real apprenticeship of writing. Learning from other writers by reading deeply will free you to make your own artistic choices. Finding examples to disprove the rules is the way to move beyond well-intentioned advice that may be holding you back, and make your memoir come alive.

Rachel Howard’s memoir about her father’s unsolved murder, The Lost Night, was described as “enthralling” by the New York Times. Her OneRoom class, Shaping Truth: Memoir and Personal Essay, begins September 16th.