One of the primary struggles new memoirists face is the question of what to sacrifice in the telling of their memoir, or what to focus on. When a person decides to write a memoir, it’s inevitable that the experience of what they want to write about seems too big, too sprawling, and so the question of how to structure and organize their memoir begins to formulate. And then, promptly, overwhelm sets in.
This is your life we’re talking about. It can hardly be captured within 80,000 words. And yet, herein lies a key point of understanding. Your memoir is not your life. It cannot and never will tell the whole story. And so you must shift your perception of how you’re writing.
When you set out to write memoir, you must choose one issue. This doesn’t mean that your memoir will only touch upon one issue, but it does mean that the one single issue you choose will orient you and your writing. It will serve as a guide and it is something you will never lose sight of. My favorite metaphor for understanding how to do this kind of writing is to imagine that you have to put on a pair of glasses every time you sit down to write your memoir. It’s a pair of glasses tinted with your primary subject or issue, meaning that you can see the entirety of your experience, but always through the lens of whatever primary issue you choose to be at the center of your memoir.
Memoirists who can come to understand how indispensible these glasses are write memoirs that are both moving and saleable. From a publisher’s perspective, being able to hitch your memoir to a single issue is key to its viability in the marketplace. From a reader’s perspective, the single issue at the heart of your memoir is the primary issue they are hoping you will unpack. They’ve picked up your book because they want to understand more about your experience of a particular issue—not the experience of your entire life with all its nuances.
I was recently approached by a memoirist who wanted to work with me whose first thirty pages lacked focus. The book could have been a motherhood memoir; a divorce memoir; or a recovery memoir. I saw these distinct threads and pointed them out to her. She felt they were equally important, and therefore had never sat back to discern what pair of glasses she was wearing when she sat down to write. It could have been a motherhood memoir, in which case her divorce and her addiction and subsequent recovery would have been seen through the lens of motherhood; or it could have been a recovery memoir, in which case her divorce and her experience of mothering would have been seen through the lens of addiction and recovery. These would be two very distinct books, of course.
I’ve written quite a lot on my own blog about how mainstream publishers lack imagination. But they also lack the capacity to see your memoir as nuanced. And really, they shouldn’t have to. Single-issue books are easy to pitch. They are easy to position. Publishers want books whose through-lines and themes are self-evident. Acquisitions editors train their attention on an issue and want to see how it’s carried through. They are looking for books that have tight hooks, and that ultimately are carried by a single issue, not multiple issues.
This is a primary point that memoirists need to understand. As I always tell my clients, this doesn’t mean that you can’t tackle multiple issues. It simply means that you have to choose a primary issue and stick with it. Any other issue you bring into your memoir is tinted with the primary issue. If you are writing an eating disorder memoir, for instance, and you also want to highlight a string of well-meaning relationships that you abandoned, you cannot talk about those relationships in a bubble, separate from the experience of the eating disorder. Or, to give actual examples of published memoirs—consider The Year of Magical Thinking. This is a book about the games our psyche plays on us after someone we love passes, and it’s so tight that every single scene seems to take into consideration her premise. In Wild, Cheryl Strayed writes about sex addiction and her relationship with her mother quite a bit, but we never lose sight of the fact that the memoir is a contained journey of transformation, about how her time on the Pacific Crest Trail changed her. In Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy’s specificity about her primary issue—the disfigurement of her face—is never lost, although she takes us through childhood, college, partying, friendships, and so much more.
If you have a multiple-issue memoir, stop and ask yourself which of the issues you’re writing about can take a back seat. It doesn’t mean that one is any less important, or less valuable, than another. It’s simply that one single issue has to be the star. This is the definition of good memoir, and understanding your primary issue will help you lock in your focus, your themes, your overarching message, and ultimately how you position to sell your book and build a platform for yourself around the issue that’s at the center of your memoir.