How Memoirs Make Meaning

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Memoir is writing based on a portion of our life, a part filled with meaning that a reader can grab for their own. Understanding, compassion, inspiration, education, empathy; we can get any of those from a memoir,

Perhaps you’re starting from the idea of a loose memoir: limited structure, at first. Or maybe a story without a conclusion, in the early going. It’s one way to start on a book. With enough revisions, it might become a book that somebody you don’t know would want to read. That’s the magic: people you never met are reading your story about a part of your life.

Novelist and coach Steve Adams notes in his always-useful newsletter, “It looks simple from a distance, but it is much harder than a nonwriter would imagine to pull out the “what happened” from the morass of the day-to-day.”

When you choose the parts of your story, he adds, you decide what meaning you want to communicate. “Separating it from everything around it (including what we “think” happened) plus forming a coherent and structurally sound narrative from it — well, as Bette Davis once said about old age, it’s not for sissies.”

Jennifer Grey, the Dirty Dancing actress whose life changed after a fix to her nose-job went south, wrote an engaging, honest memoir last year. Her editor said that “Out of the Corner” was easier for Grey to write because Grey had a collection of journals ranging from age 14 until 41. Then her editor coached Grey through six months of Zoom sessions — daily. (The memoir’s title is based on a “Baby doesn’t stay in a corner” line from the movie.)

Grey reached for “high points and low points and the way I’ve adapted to dramatic shifts,” she said in a New York Times article. She turned in a massive manuscript she called the whole enchilada. She was covering a big part of her life, from teenage years to life in her 50s. Threading your way through that much life demands lots of leaping across years, as well as good transitions.

Memoirists learn that meaning is what matters, more than events. Your memoir rides a carpet of drama to communicate truth. You can discover yourself by writing your memoir, so long as you push yourself to suspend judgments and open yourself to insights.

And remain entertaining, like when Dave Eggars says in his brilliant preface to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, “The author would like to acknowledge his propensity to exaggerate. And his propensity to fib in order to make himself look better, or worse, whichever serves his purposes at the time.”

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