by Matt Sinclair
I was not born in a log cabin. I have neither run for public office nor finished a race longer than 6.2 miles. Despite my best attempts, I did not play professional baseball and have never dated a supermodel. (And I'm not quite sure which of those two I tried harder to accomplish.) I am not an alcoholic, though there were a couple nights during college when it may have appeared I was trying hard to become one. There was one time when I almost wasn't allowed out of a rehab facility when I was visiting a friend ... but seriously, who hasn't had that experience?
In fact, when it comes right down to it, my life is a pretty average tale of suburban youth, assorted mistakes and successes, several thousand baseball and softball games, a little love, a lot of boredom, and probably a few million words read and written. Not much to write about that the whole wide world might find even moderately interesting.
Of course, if I ever sell the manuscripts I've written and build the audience I'm hoping to develop, then all bets are off!
I wouldn't call myself a regular reader of memoir, but I've read enough of them to know what I like. In the past several months, I read Heaven Is for Real and McCarthy's Bar—though I'd call the latter a travelogue more than a memoir. I generally stay away from the celebrity tell-alls because I just don't care about most of those people.
Which brings me to my point: Unless you're a celebrity or have gained a level of noteriety for whatever reason, if you're writing a memoir you must ask yourself the same question that an agent would ask. Why should anyone care?
I don't mean to sound flippant, and I'm not being cruel, but the world is filled with pain and suffering and always has been. What makes your pain and suffering worth reading about? What lessons that you've learned do the book-buying public absolutely need to learn?
Then again, the same might have been said to Frank McCourt, whose memoir, Angela's Ashes, was arguably one of the best and most well received in the past twenty years. And he answered those questions. The book is many years old now, but the reason it was successful is timeless. It had something many aspiring memoirists fail to accomplish in their manuscript: a narrative arc. It was a story—a true story, yes, but a story nonetheless.
It felt real not because it was real but because there was a storyteller behind it. In a great memoir, like a great story, there is search and discovery. There is change. Even a well-written recitation of facts comes across as a mere chronology, not as a story.
A wise friend of mine shared a tidbit that helps place this all in perspective. The things that happen to you are events, she said, but a series of events does not make a compelling story. When she was in college and some of her classmates prattled on about what happened to them, their professor was known to say, "I don't care what happened to you. I only care what you did!"
Get it? No matter how amazing that car accident you narrowly averted was or how awe-inspiring was the sight of dolphins swimming beside your boat, they're meaningless unless they changed you. You survived your brush with death? That's nice. But you haven't changed one whit; you're still a twit. Show me why I should care.
Unless you have the built-in audience a celebrity can attract, your memoir won't sell unless it has those essential story elements: action, reaction, and change. In my opinion, it's one of the many reasons memoirs are queried much like novels: If the story doesn't attract an agent's attention, it's not going to do a whole lot for a large audience either. Without a story, you're just spinning tales and your wheels.
What is the story of you? Is it worth telling as memoir?
Now, back to me....