The three "E"s: unlocking the secret to successful memoir writing
I often tell my memoir-writing clients that their ability to purely, concretely and specifically write the truth of their own human experience is the best (and maybe only) way to make their story instantly universal and relatable. (Which is what all successful memoirs must do.)
It’s a seeming paradox: what makes you utterly unique in this world (no one has ever had your exact same experience) is the ONE thing that instantly connects to you everyone else and makes your story relatable to others. Perhaps even makes it universal.
That’s the magic of memoir. The supremely specific alchemized into the universal.
But how, exactly, does it work?
I’ll give you a hint, it’s not really in the level of detail or concreteness, those are vehicles that get you where you’re going.
It’s in empathy.
I was just listening to a Brene Brown/Marie Forleo podcast. Swoon. And Brown answered this question for me (as she’s done so many times before, unbeknownst to her). She was speaking about how empathy is the act of connecting to the underlying emotion someone is experiencing and relating to that.
Empathy is the answer. In memoir. In life.
We don’t need to have braved the Pacific Coast Trail, or even lost our mothers, to FEEL the grief the Cheryl Strayed expresses in Wild. Because we know grief. And she expresses it in the ways we haven’t been able to articulate for ourselves, perhaps.
Memoir WRITING gives us that sacred opportunity to self-express, to reveal our naked selves to the world in service to something bigger.
Memoir READING gives us the sacred opportunity to empathize. To connect deeply to the emotions of another human (regardless of how much their story details match ours) and feel what they feel. And, in so doing, to notice, reflect on, process, and perhaps even heal our own hurts around those universal feelings. Or to at least feel less alone.
What does this mean for memoirists? It means you have to get supremely, exquisitely vulnerable.
It means to you need to dare your feelings.
To not only feel them, but to be with them, to sit with them long enough—longer than you wish, I bet—and keep peeling back the layers and the veils until you can communicate them truthfully and without reservation to others.
Just the way a non-fiction author knows their topic to a deeper level than most people, you must know the emotions more than most people. What they are like and how to express them through your art.
If you aren’t comfortable with feelings and their expression: don’t write a memoir.
If you’re not willing to turn yourself inside out for the world to see, to set yourself ablaze on the front lawn, maybe write a screenplay.
If you don’t want to be seen, get a day job.
To sum: three secrets to potent memoir:
EMPATHY. EMOTION. EXPRESSION
Honoring my memoir clients and all the memoirists, latent and actualized. It’s no small feat what you make into medicine for the masses.