The Love and Hate of Memoir


You love them. You hate them . . .


You yearn to record their greatness. You seethe to burn them good. The heady month of hearts and flowers seems a fine time to consider what all this emotion can do to the success of a memoir.

A story about real-life relationships seems like the perfect place to ensconce a loved one on a golden column of righteousness, doesn’t it? Or maybe you see it this way: The inviting, I-oriented form of memoir is your anointed place to blame.

It’s true, memoir is all about relationships. It is a place to explore your life and to ponder the effects other people have had on it. But, how you present those people is the tipping point between making your memoir crazy good for readers, or not.

First, memoir is about the relationship you have with yourself, so you have to get that right, and then secondly it is about shared interactions with family, friends, lovers, employers, colleagues, and even peripheral associates.

The relationship you have with yourself and that you paint with words in your memoir will be the strongest clue for readers about whether they want to hang out with you for x-number of pages. Do you treat yourself with respect? Can you laugh at yourself? Do you bring wisdom to your foibles and choices?

If you treat yourself with patient curiosity, readers will most likely scamper along behind you to see what you figure out. If you show contempt for your choices, or play the downtrodden victim, the reader heads out for a jog. He does not want to bind his life to such a character.

The same thing holds true for your relationships with the people who have played roles in your life. Do you treat them with respect and balance your presentation? Do you show their dark and light, the positive and negative ways they influenced your world? Do you place in larger perspective their choices? Do you try to see it their way?

If you don’t, the stories you tell of these people, and your dealings with them, will end up sounding self-serving and one-dimensional, or worse yet, whiny, a sure ticket to the old pony graveyard for your memoir.

What makes a memoir hum with universal power is your willingness and ability to show compassion for the complex characters who have peopled your decades–be they winning, tiresome, hurtful, or just vexing.

It takes stunning honesty to do this, but if you can, your memoir will rise above the deluge of me-me-me stories jockeying for space in our ever-shrinking literary world.

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