Get Over Yourself! Some musings on the art and craft of memoir

In my years as a memoir teacher, editor, and coach, and as a memoirist myself, I’ve found that the greatest challenge for a personal writer is to create work that is meaningful to others. And the most crucial question a personal writer can ask, and keep asking, her material in an effort to meet that challenge is, WHO CARES?


An inspiring, tough-love quote that any serious memoirist should put on a post-it above her desk comes from New York Times columnist David Carr, about his memoir of drug abuse, The Night of the Gun: “Personal narrative is not simply opening up a vein and letting the blood flow toward anyone willing to stare.” Amen to that—what personal narrative, like any other genre of writing, is about, is telling a good story.

Two important bits to keep in mind: 1. What is, rightly, profound to you is not automatically profound to others, and 2. Your whole life isn’t relevant. The challenge is to sculpt that marble, leaving substantial chunks of it to the side, to allow the statue within—the true story within the story—to emerge. As memoirists, we strive dually, to achieve uniqueness and at the same time, universality: How can I make this story precisely mine? And simultaneously, how can I make my story interesting even to readers who haven’t shared my experience? Like James Joyce said, “in the particular is contained the universal.”


A little exercise that I’ve found useful in this getting-over-yourself endeavor: Come up with an especially emotionally significant moment in your life, and write a short (1-2 page) personal essay about it. But two rules: no naming the emotion (“I feel overjoyed/lonely/terrified/etc.”), and no first person. Instead, write in the second person (“you”), externalizing that emotion—that is, describing either how it physically manifested (sweaty palms? headache? stomach cramps? heavy limbs?) or how the environment around you looked when you were experiencing that emotion. Also good to write in the present tense, to get at the immediacy of the moment, really mine that memory as if you were there right now.


If you found that fun and helpful, there’s more: Under my rubric The Vertical Pronoun, I work individually with personal writers on their memoirs—whether they’ve got completed first drafts in need of sharp edits or want a sounding board for various amorphous ideas that are percolating—via e-mail and phone, so wherever you are in the world is dandy. But if you do live in the NYC area, I’m offering live group workshops, starting in April in Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. And if you happen to find yourself in the heartland this July, I’ll be teaching three memoir classes at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, always a grand old time.

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Comment by Robyn Michele Levy on March 24, 2011 at 12:19pm

Good advice! I am currently at the end of the long process of writing my memoir and I am grateful and lucky to have a fantastic editor. She is helping me to focus the story.

Personally, the greatest challenge I am facing is being honest -- particularly when it comes to complex issues and relationships. The quote I turn to again and again is at the beginning of Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle: Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.

So I try to tell my truth.

It's not always easy.

BTW, my book is called Most of Me, Surviving my Medical Meltdown. There is a blurb about it on my website:



Comment by Katherine Jenkins on March 21, 2011 at 9:33am
Excellent post. My memoir will be published spring 2012 and what you write here is definitely key. Sculpting your story is so important. While uniqueness and universal appeal are also equally important, asking and answering the question "Why am I telling this story?" has been the most important piece for me.
Comment by Adela Crandell Durkee on March 21, 2011 at 5:46am
Thanks!  I started blogging my childhood memories, just as a warm up for my "real" writing.  I thought it might be fun for my family to read.  I am still surprised that what I write resonates with all ages.  I have readers from India, China, Australia, and Iowa.  Who knew?  Maybe this will be my next book!
Comment by Kristen on March 20, 2011 at 4:40pm
Sarah - Thank you so much for this - it's very helpful! The quote by David Carr is very poignant, and something I will remember.
Comment by Sharon D. Dillon on March 20, 2011 at 1:45pm
Thank you for the info, Sarah. I'm struggling with my memoir because I'd like others to avoid some of life's traps that I fell into. I want enough of my story to make it personal yet generic enough that the reader can see his/herself and want to make changes.
Comment by Christina Brandon on March 20, 2011 at 12:28pm
Thanks for that "who cares" reminder! It helps narrow the focus of some unwieldy pieces.
Comment by Jo Vraca on March 19, 2011 at 10:20pm

Amen to "Your whole life isn’t relevant". I'm ghostwriting an autobiography of an 82 year-old Holocaust survivor and, while so much of her life is compelling, it's only at this 3rd draft that I'm coming to terms with the word "CUT". If the event adds nothing to the narrative at all, get rid of it! It may have been interesting in itself but if it's too brief and does not act a segway into the next stage of the story, I'm being ruthless. Must admit though, it hurts!

Comment by Jennifer Hazard on March 19, 2011 at 5:56pm
I'm working on this and it's very enlightening, the focus on the physical and sensory both sharpens and dis-empowers the memory at the same time...
Comment by Sarah Saffian on March 19, 2011 at 11:41am
Appreciate the tip, Cathy!
Comment by Sarah Saffian on March 19, 2011 at 11:30am
Thanks much everyone for these fabulous comments. Wow, if we got all these women in a room together for a workshop, that would be wildly fulfilling for all, methinks.. (For those who don't live in the NYC area, my plan is to lead virtual workshops online in the future; for now, individual writing coaching/editing/consulting is all I can do via e-mail..)


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