There’s no greater incidence of imposter syndrome than among memoir authors. When your first book is a memoir, not only can you question whether you’re a “real author” but also whether your topic is important enough for a book. The question of worthiness comes up time and again. Is my life interesting enough to fill a memoir? Why would anyone want to read about me?
By definition, your life is unique. There’s only one you. We language nerds never use the term “more unique” or “less unique,” because “unique” means “one of a kind” without adding a descriptor. So I won’t say that some lives are less unique than others, but certainly some lives, while unique, have fewer dramatic moments or seem to follow more typical patterns. They’re kind of ordinary. So let’s look at both extremes.
The most common reason people give for writing a memoir is that they’ve lived through a difficult event or time and want to write it out for cathartic reasons or to help the next person facing the same crisis. This can be any life challenge—an abusive childhood, harsh poverty, a health condition, an escape from a dangerous political environment, anything.
The opposite exceptional life—privilege or fame—also motivates people to write a memoir. Simply chronicling how the person acquired wealth or became famous supplies the author with a story that people will read.
In both cases, the compelling plot drives the narrative. How did this start? What came next? The idea is to make it a page-turner. If you’ve had something significant and uncommon happen to you, or if you’ve chosen to take a road less traveled, I can assure you that your life is interesting enough to write about.
Now let’s say you’ve had a life much like the lives of everyone else you know. You’d like to document the facts of your life, but you have a hard time picturing anyone except your family wanting to spend time reading about your picket-fence family life, your desk job with its periodic promotions, your golf hobby or your volunteer activities in your community.
First, at Write My Memoirs we often get requests for second and third printings from our self-publishing authors because of the person’s initial underestimate of how many friends and acquaintances will ask to read the memoir. People who know you even only through social media can be curious to read about your life.
Second, let me ask you something. What are your favorite TV shows? Maybe “Stranger Things” or “Law & Order” is on your list, but many of the most popular shows, both comedies and dramas, center on ordinary people like you and a family or professional life like yours. The incidents may be exaggerated, but from “Family Ties” and “Family Matters” to “Friends,” “Modern Family,” “This Is Us” and both versions of the “The Wonder Years,” the shows are relatable to viewers specifically because they ring true; you recognize your own life in the lives of the characters.
For the memoir of a more ordinary life, the plot isn’t what drives the page-turning. It’s the way the life is presented. Humor can entertain, warmth in telling your story can engage readers and, most important, being candid and honest makes readers trust you and enjoy what you have to tell.
Writing is the Key Ingredient
So if you’re looking for a recipe for a great memoir, it isn’t really the story. The key ingredient is the writing. Use strong verbs. Paint visual pictures so the reader is right there with you. Don’t repeat yourself. Don’t leave holes that readers can’t fill in by themselves. Develop your own writing style, and be consistent with it.
You’ve lived the life you’ve lived. No one else has lived it. Telling what that life was about from your point of view will make a fine memoir. You just have to sit down and write it!