"The last class of my old professor's life took place once a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus plant shed its pink leaves. The class met on Tuesdays. It began after breakfast. The subject was The Meaning of Life. It was taught from experience."
So begins Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom's memoir about his 14 visits with the professor who was the most influential teacher in Albom's life. Using powerful imagery, Albom immerses readers in the final days of his mentor's life and the new lessons he learned about living and death.
The enormous popularity of memoirs like Albom's speaks volumes about our love of personal tales. But what defines this genre, and how does it differ from other formats?
The memoir walks a fuzzy line between autobiography, travelogue, essay and diary. Written in the first person, a memoir generally focuses on a single aspect of a person's life and has an underlying theme woven throughout. Although it may follow a chronological sequence, it's not a chronological accounting of every life event—that's an autobiography. In Jimmy Carter's book Turning Point, he could've written an auto-biography of his life to date, but he choose to focus on his first race for public office.
What about a journey tale? Not all travelogues are memoirs, but some memoirs can be travelogues. That's because the emotional or psychological journey experienced by the author may take place during an actual physical journey. If a real-life Inman had written Cold Mountain, the account of his journey would be a memoir—with each experience on the way home, he developed a greater sense of his own inner journey.
The diary-like tale Ice Bound is the gripping account of Dr. Jerri Nielsen's battle with breast cancer while trapped at the South Pole. The outer focus is Nielsen's autobiographical story of her self-administered chemotherapy while waiting for a flight out during the Antarctic winter. Underlying the life-and-death struggle is Nielsen's search for self-discovery.
While thousands of storytellers write memoirs every year, few ever make it into print. Agents such as New York-based Loretta Barrett are swamped with submissions from wannabe memoirists, spilling the beans on "terrible childhoods, sexual abuse, or drug and alcohol recovery."
So what separates successful works like Nielsen's Ice Bound from dull manuscripts that warrant the quick pink slip? "Beautiful writing and extraordinary story," Barrett says.
Some say great prose is writing that comes from the heart. I say it's writing that captures the heart. Norman Maclean's near-memoir A River Runs Through It is a fictional story, but it's closely based on his Montana childhood and the family for whom "there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing." Its closing line, "I am haunted by waters," strikes emotion in readers, which is key to a great memoir.
Writers of extraordinary memoirs strive for the impossible—weaving a theme of universal relevance that sets off a vibration in every fiber of the reader's mind and body—all while walking a tightrope over a crocodile klatch named cliché. So, while it's great that you kicked a bad habit (or survived a difficult experience, etc.), readers want the story beneath the story.
Maya Angelou and Carter each wrote compelling tales using an honest voice that drew readers into worlds familiar, yet not. Most of us will never suffer Nielsen's breast cancer, but we do recognize the Everyman quality—the struggle to survive while finding meaning in the effort.
Be careful naming names
No matter how true and riveting your story is, be careful naming real people in your memoir. Richard Burton's battle with booze was public knowledge, so wife Elizabeth Taylor could pen her struggles with Burton's demons with impunity. If your memoir reveals daddy dearest's sexual abuse, however, grab a lawyer and get some advice. Dishing dirt about private citizens can be cause for libel or defamation-of-character charges—regardless of the truth. Naming a public person in your memoir may not save you from a lawsuit, either. Last December, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo filed a $15 million libel suit against author Greg Palast and publisher Plume, purporting the book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy included a libelous claim that Cuomo influenced a federal judge to dismiss a verdict. Hiding a real person's identity behind a fictionalized name and description or using a real person's name to describe your childhood villain can get you into hot water, too. Peyton Place author Grace Metalious was sued by a man in her hometown for using his name in her steamy potboiler. While they settled out of court, it's believed to have cost Metalious quite a bit of money. In any case, check with an attorney. If you're lucky enough to have an agent, she'll probably run any potential problems by her own counsel.
AND WHAT OF THOSE CROCODILES?
Many memoirs simply miss the mark, in theme, prose or both. In Ann-Margret's My Story, the story underneath the story is hard to find and wading through the language is tough. Take a look at this scene from My Story:
I could have suffered emotional damage from being the outsider in a strange culture, had Mother not helped me make friends by signing me up for dance lessons at the Marjorie Young School of Dance.
Now, contrast this with an excerpt from Angelou's The Heart of a Woman:
Black and white Americans danced a fancy and often dangerous do-si-do. In our steps forward, abrupt turns, sharp spins and reverses, we became our own befuddlement ... . The year's popular book was Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and its title was an apt description of our national psyche. We were indeed traveling, but no one knew our destination nor our arrival date.
SELLING THE TALE
Whether you're writing about a national tragedy that changed your world or a seemingly trivial event that determined the composition of your life, craft a tale with universal relevance. Find your theme—illness, abuse, bigotry, poverty, love, separation, justice—and weave it like a master craftsman. It can meander through your book like a winding, beckoning trail or be as painful as an open, gushing wound, but don't lose it in the trappings of the tale.
Find the extraordinary in your story. The same basic topics color the pages of bestselling memoirs. Make yours stand out. Many people wrote about prejudice before Carter's An Hour Before Daylight, but his sweet tale of the rural Georgia of his youth where bigotry was the soup du jour gives an emotional edge to the story, one that attaches to readers. Carter's straightforward voice and simple style state the anti-prejudice case far more effectively than the books whose writers ride the race horse, beating it for all its worth. Take his friendship with A.D., a black boy who was Carter's closest playmate:
It never seemed to me that A.D. tried to change, except when one of my parents was present. Then he just became much quieter, watched what was going on with vigilance, and waited until we were alone again to resume his more carefree and exuberant ways.
No strident jockey can beat him. And that's what memoirs are made of.