You can’t be all things to all people, the saying goes. That’s the core message of the seventh of Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing short stories, which I’m reviewing week by week and applying to writing memoirs.
Rule 7: Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
This advice is pertinent to writing an autobiography. Let’s say your primary purpose is to provide your grandchildren and generations thereafter with the gift of reading about your life from your personal perspective. In that case, you’ll probably want to include many details about your family and the upbringing of your children (their parents). Now let’s say you’re writing a book for wider distribution. The general reader who enjoys autobiographical work will be more interested in the adventurous episodes of your life. Maybe you’ve been a soldier, competitive athlete, accomplished professional or victim of a tragedy. These tales will more likely keep the reader involved than if you go into great detail about raising your children. With this reader in mind, you also have more freedom to describe adult-oriented situations with language appropriate for that readership.
You may even want to write two autobiographies. One can be a G-rated memoir for your family, while the other takes a more sophisticated approach. Bottom line is that I agree with Mr. Vonnegut: you want your life story to be focused and healthy, not to catch pneumonia!