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Ask the Agony Editor: on memoirs

Unless you’re a former drug addict with a strong narrative voice, rethink that memoir

Brian-Francis-FinalDear Agony Editor,

I have had a really interesting life and everyone keeps telling me I should write a book. Does a great life story make a great memoir?

Putting the “me”
in “memoir”


Dear Me,
If I had a dime for every time I heard someone say, “My life would make an interesting book,” I wouldn’t have to rely on being a Canadian fiction writer to make my millions. When you say “everyone,” Me, are you referring to your Aunt Adele or to people with no connection to you? The reason I ask is that while your life may be interesting to family and friends, it needs to be interesting to a much wider book-buying audience. In other words: strangers.

A quick scan of recent memoirs on Amazon included a heroin-addicted television writer, a former Playboy Bunny and a Canadian journalist abducted in Somalia by armed extremists. Can your life compete with that? If so, get out the typewriter.

But before you do, keep in mind some key points. Memoirs cover specific timeframes. Autobiographies span a person’s entire life. Start by deciding what are the most significant moments of yours. Chronology isn’t as important as theme. Determine your memoir’s message. Is it hope? Redemption? Resilience?

I asked award-winning memoirist and writing instructor Wayson Choy for his thoughts. First, Choy says you need to find your narrative voice. Whatever that “voice” is (mysterious, gripping, familiar), your reader needs to surrender to it. In other words, the reader has to trust you. Second, Choy says you need movement. The best memoirs read like novels. So consider things like action, tension, conflict, and resolution. And don’t make yourself out to be a hero. No one ever is.

One final piece of advice: don’t lie. If you do, Oprah will gather up her hounds, hunt you down and destroy you.

Brian Francis is the author of Natural Order and Fruit. He teaches creative writing­ as part of the International Festival of Authors.

Have a question for Brian? Email info@quillandquire.com.