When I started teaching writing over a decade ago I always used to tell writers NOT to write about themselves. This was in the interests of cultivating good fiction authors. Why? Because if you write about yourself in fiction, you really only have one story to tell. It is also a totally misunderstood maxim of writing that you must ‘write what you know.’ All this has changed!
Many writers misinterpret this to mean – write about yourself. This is not true. What you 'know' is diverse. You may know how to make a bomb from HTH, or how to carefully conceal a crime. You may know how to annoy your sibling, make a rocket from jam jars or hack into the FBI mainframe. You certainly know all about jealousy, anger, rage, revenge, fear, loss and triumph.
You know a lot more than just your own life story.
In fact often when I am working on a manuscript with a writer I will point out that they haven’t spent the required time to craft a character with care, they have simply used their own character traits. And very few of us are interesting enough to be fictional characters.
We ordinary folk simply don’t make for very good fiction. Not unless you are a ruthless trained killer (Jason Bourne) a damaged sex addict (Hank Moodey), a telepathic waitress dating a vampire (Sookie Stackhouse), selected to take part in a public fight to the death (Katniss Everdeen), a billionaire with a prediliction for spanking (Christian Grey) or a sassy foul-mouthed bounty hunter (Stephanie Plum).
But I have long since changed my tune. Now writing about yourself is a very realistic thing to do if you want to be published.
It is compelling to read about other people’s lives in intimate, graphic, no-holds-barred detail. The more graphic the better. One of my favourite writers Joanne Fedler describes writing a memoir as “the verbal equivalent of streaking”.
If you are going to streak,... make sure you do it at the World Cup.
So here is the clincher.... Memoir has to have a STORY.
If you are writing about yourself there has to actually be a story or a plot.
So what is your story? The job of a memoir writer is to find your own story within your life. Your next job is to craft a plot that takes your reader on the journey with you so they want to read to the last word.
You don’t necessarily have to have been reared by wolves, held as a sex slave in a basement for a decade, married to Mick Jagger or found God in a coma. Of course agony sells. But you could have simply left your husband and gone on a spiritual journey (Eat, Pray, Love), found joy in a year of pain (My Year of Magical Thinking) or just been a very pushy parent (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother).
It is not that these people did anything particularly extraordinary, but they wrote about it in an extraordinary way. They found a journey within a story.
And sometimes the writing becomes the adventure and nobody ends up reading it but you! So what! Writing your own story is not as linear as writing to be published.
If it’s good enough to be published, well that’s grand. If not, you have gone deeper, understood more, recorded something of value and ‘tasted life twice’.
Everyone has a story to tell. What is yours?
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Sarah Bullen is a writing coach, agent and book editor. She is a structure fanatic and coaches writers on how to write and get published.