Writing a Memoir: Lesson Two – Purpose

memoirs-lesson2As I mentioned in Lesson One of my Memoir Writing Resource series, an essential step to writing an effective memoir or memoir based
blog post is determining what the purpose of your memoir (or post) will be. Just like any other writing piece or project, there are many reasons which can motivate a writer to pen a memoir. You may be writing to inform family and friends of events from your past or present, writing to entertain the public with your heroic or hilarious history (a la David Sedaris), or writing for some other reason.

The truth is, although all creation and writing in particular is in some facet personal, there are as many motivations for writing a memoir as there are people to write them, and the purpose for that memoir may be as personal to you as your stories are. Although the details may vary from person to person, what you can be sure of is that if you aren’t sure why you’re writing that no one else will be, either. Simply spinning a narrative isn’t enough if you want to produce a truly compelling piece of writing.

Why is it important to understand your purpose?

  1. Decision Making
    It is impossible to include every event that has occurred in your life in a memoir. Besides, even if you could, you wouldn’t want to. The benefit of writing a memoir over an autobiography is that you no longer need to feel compelled to include everything. You can determine what exactly it is you’re trying to convey, both in terms of the complete project and within a particular section, and include details which support that intention and theme. If you can’t make a story fit but know you want to include it, keep it off to the side and see where it could come into play later.Cutting out particular stories and even short periods of our lives may be necessary in order to create a sound memoir. This isn’t a failure on your part. Not everything can be relevant, even if it’s a good story! Keep these pieces off to the side, and consider releasing them as free teaser content to your mailing list, social media subscribers, or just on Amazon as their own separate content to entice readers to check out more of your work. Just because a story isn’t right for a particular chapter doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t write it out or that you won’t find a purpose for it later on.
  2. Flow
    Memoir selections which lack purpose feel a bit like Grandpa Simpson stories…

    The Simpsons TM Copyright Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

    Now obviously not every person who writes a section of memoir without an explicit purpose in mind are as blatant or deliberate as Abe Simpson was, but hopefully you get the point. Basically: if you don’t have a specific purpose or intended theme for each story you tell, then the reader may get lost from one section of your memoir to the next and get distracted from the overall intention – which would definitely not be as hilarious. If you’re struggling with how to weave your ideas together or if you are unsure if your purpose is obvious to readers who didn’t take part in your experiences, then ask a friend or colleague to look over the section for you and give you an idea of what they “get” from it or what they perceived the theme of the section to be. If you are the only intended reader, then just make sure that when you reread the draft for yourself that you can make sense of the order of events. Some day when you return to the memoir and it is less fresh in your mind you may realize that your purpose was not as clear or deliberate as you had previously thought!

  3. Helping You Process Emotions and Events in a Healthy Way
    Although this is number three on this list, this is A BIG ONE! If you’re writing to try to come to peace with some aspect of your past or some event that you went through, it is very important that you remain true to that specific purpose to avoid doing more harm than good. Natasha Odou at Australian National University in Canberra and Jay Brinker in Hawthorn at the Swinburn University of Technology have shown that introspection with “self-compassion” is important. Their research indicates that without reflecting on events with self-kindness and mindfulness, we can actually make our feelings about traumatic or troubling events worse. This is of particular concern for memoir writers who write for cathartic purposes. Those individuals must spend a great deal of time reflecting on and writing about disturbing moments from their past, and unless they keep in mind the purpose of resolving pent up emotions, they may make matters worse for themselves. Being compassionate towards oneself when reflecting on negative events can ward off the detrimental effects of brooding and keep memoir writers safe in a zone of thoughtful reflection. You can read more about these findings on the British Psychological Society’s blog.
  4. Focus
    If you notice, I repeatedly stress the importance of being focused. This is true not only for your writing so you don’t turn into Abe Simpson, but also to keep you coming back to your writing. Often novelists struggle to keep up with their writing projects and finish writing projects they start out with (…guilty!) because they lose focus. If they don’t have a reason for writing other than ‘I want this out of my head and on that screen’ then when that particular motivation leaves them or another inspiration strikes their fancy, then that novel/project/memoir gets tossed aside and abandoned. If you truly don’t want to lose sight of the end game, a completed memoir, then outline a purpose early on to keep you on track. Set goals for yourself that will help keep that purpose in the corner of your mind so it doesn’t get left in the dust.

Sound off in the comments if you can think of any other reasons why it’s important to have a purpose when you’re working on your memoir! I’d love to hear what you think and add your input to the knowledge base I’m trying to put together for my readers.

Additional Posts in this Series:

Introduction :: Lesson 1 – Content :: Lesson 2 – Purpose :: Lesson 3 – Audience :: Lesson 4 – Blurbs

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7 thoughts on “Writing a Memoir: Lesson Two – Purpose

  1. Stephen Bentley says:

    I enjoyed these two posts on writing a memoir. Having just finished my first draft of my own memoir, I will bear your points in mind when I revisit my manuscript. Is there a Part 3 Planned? Thanks.

    1. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my posts, and I hope that they serve you useful when you go back in revising the project. – Congratulations on completing the first draft, by the way. 🙂 — Right now I have two posts in mind for this series, but if you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them.

      Right now I’m working on a post about how to tell who your audience is or should be (It’s useful for deciding what you can cut from your memoir vs what is essential, but it’s also beneficial if you intend to shop your book around to agents or publishers. Knowing your market and having a platform are of incredible importance these days.) The second planned post after that goes over how to craft a blurb for your memoir. It’s not only how to write a compelling “elevator pitch” of sorts that you can use in general promotion, but something that will help your memoir stand out from the dozens which might be on any given store shelf.

      Best of luck with your manuscript!

      1. Stephen Bentley says:

        Thanks for the good wishes. I can’t wait to read the post on how to craft a blurb! I will delay publication until I have read it 🙂

        1. You may have already published by now, but if you still wanted to check out my blurb recommendations I have posted the article: — I already had content scheduled a few weeks out, but I went ahead and posted this one tonight as I wrote it.

          Best of luck with your memoir! You’ll have to share the listing when it’s available. 🙂

          1. Stephen Bentley says:

            Thanks for that. I will have a good read and take notes. I’m still at the second draft stage with the memoir but I will certainly share the listing when it’s time.

          2. I wanted to touch base since a few weeks had passed – I hope that you’re making steady progress!

          3. Stephen Bentley says:

            Hey! It’s so good that you have touched base with me. It is appreciated. I am progressing despite losing my manuscript Word doc in One Drive! But I had another version that required some work to it so all was not lost! The progress is steady. I am not going to rush things as I want the book to be perfect. I will update you as soon as there is some news. Thanks once more.

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