Confession: before writing my own story I’d only read one memoir in my entire life: Star Trek Movie Memories by William Shatner. I read it back during high school. Which should tell you all you need to know about my high school years.
Since then, I’ve read a lot more memoir. And I’ve also been irritated by a lot of memoir. I think there are some hard and fast rules to making your story one that can be enjoyed by others, so when I see those rules (that, admittedly, exist only in my head) broken it’s a huge pet peeve for me. Here’s six of them:
(Note: I don’t think it’s kosher to slag on my fellow memoir writers so I’m not going identify the books I’m talking about. However, if you pull me aside privately and ply me with a Shamrock Shake, I am fully capable of presenting names and titles.)
1. Reflective First Person
This is how memoir writers torch narrative momentum. Instead of letting me experience the story as they experienced it, some insist on explaining the future impact of the scene they’ve just described. One recent book I read ended two chapters with a last paragraph that started with “And thus began…” First of all: “thus?” Second of all, it’s great that you can look back and see how portentous the seemingly innocuous events of your life were in retrospect, but now you’ve robbed me of the same discovery.
In other words, don’t friggin’ spoil your own book.
2. Acknowledging Memory Loss
Look, it’s a memoir. Root word: memory. We know memory is faulty. We know it’s not perfect. We know you’re only doing your best to present your life in an interesting way as far as you can remember it while at the same time avoiding untruths. You don’t, at any point, need to say “I can’t remember exactly…” Giving five possible dates for when a thing occurred does not help me one bit. Because I don’t care. I take it for granted that you’re not a reporter because, um, it says memoir on the cover.
3. Acknowledging Memory
Look, it’s a memoir. Root word: memory. Every single sentence could be preceded by the words “I remember…” So why oh why would you ever start any sentence that way? It’s entirely redundant.
4. Too Many Paragraph Breaks
People wouldn’t write memoirs if they didn’t think they had an amazing story worth telling, but some writers think that every moment of drama must be punctuated by hitting the return key multiple times on every page to really drive home how amazing, insightful, deep, world shattering, and paradigm shifting the events really are.
It’s emphasis turning into overemphasis.
And then mutated into bloated, self-important noise on the page.
I’m not kidding, you guys.
5. Betrayal of Community
There’s being funny and thoughtful about where you’ve come from, and then there’s being mean. Many memoirs focus on a transformative moment in the author’s life when they realize the world they’ve grown up in must be left behind. So, we’re reading a story from the perspective of someone who feels the world we’re reading about is, to one degree or another, bad or undesirable.
The temptation, particularly if the author is especially snarky or witty, is to make fun or take cheap shots. The danger of that is making what should be an insider perspective sound very much like an outside perspective. I don’t want my ignorant perceptions of a curious community catered to for the sake of comedy or cool. I want insight.
6. Good Story, Poorly Told
This really should be number one, but it encapsulates all the others so I put it last. I love a good story and a lot of memoir writers (especially celebrities) get a book deal because the story they have to tell is just that good. But if the story is not written well then the author is just turding up a shine.
The other side of this is a poor, boring story well told. A good writer can make gold out of anything, but those are few and far between. The best memoir writer is the one who has a good story and can tell it very, very well. Those are rare, but they’re worth wading through all the rest to find them.
Guess where my aspirations lie?
Do you read memoir? Have any pet peeves that I missed? Love to hear ’em.