Few of us are famous. By definition, the word fame labels such people and things as well-known, and there are real limits on how much the world can know about somebody. If you’re like me and not famous, you can still have a memoir inside you, on your laptop, or in the pages of a favorite notebook, one that’s worthy of publication. You don’t even need to have experienced something as unique as cutting off your own arm to escape the wilderness. The key to getting your story into the world and creating a book is to do battle with the so-what moment. You do that battle with the fundamental tools of storytelling.
Some of those tools help craft sentences and sections, and others serve to steer your story and reel in readers. Paula Balzer examines this in her book Writing and Selling Your Memoir. Some of the weapons to battle that moment — when a reader first sees yours is another story about a broken home, addiction, abuse, financial ruin, or infidelity — rely on the bedrock of voice and style. Your writing must emerge over so many words and drafts that you’re fluid in your voice: the writing that sounds like you and you alone. Everybody has memoir stories to tell, yes. But only you can tell the story in your voice.
Style is comprised of rules and choices, but staying consistent with your voice is a great start to honing in on style. A hair stylist makes a statement for you when you emerge from their salon. Your hair becomes an expressive, emotional element when it’s styled. Your writing makes the same leap when you write towards exuding style. Style has elements, in the classic Strunk & White textbook The Elements of Style. Like the individual cuts, curls, and colors of the salon, the grammar, punctuation, and choices of those elements make up writing style. Like the hairdo that makes us look, good style compels reading.
Reaching for style involves rewriting, the practice that gives you a go-to repertoire. No gerunds, for example. Short sentences, several of them, followed by one long one. The exquisite use of just the right word, although it’s one that’s rare as a just-minted coin in the reader’s hand. It’s the fadeaway jumper from Michael Jordan, says Ben Yagoda in The Sound on the Page, or John Coltrane’s use of the modal scale in jazz. Or leaving out the obvious, like Hemingway did, “and agressively omitting adjectives, metaphors, commas, and connecting words and phrases.”
Although a memoir’s experiences may not be unique, even that can work in your favor. If a story has a high relatability factor — many of us have grieved for someone we’ve have lost — it’s easier for our readers to connect with us. At their essence, stories of marital infidelity are really about betrayal. If you’ve never married, you can still relate to betrayal. And betrayal, and its aftermath, contributes to a universal theme. The little guy who fights the big Goliath of a company can bring down an unfair competitor. But how? Showing us exactly which moments contribute to a universal theme propels a story about a hike through the Appalachians to overcome doubt about abilities (A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson) beyond that story’s so-what moment. It was just a hike, so what? It was also a discovery about how a hiker is made, or born. And we connected with the main characters early enough in the story to stay on the scene and watch whatever happened next.
In the big picture, the battle against the so-what moment is won or lost with effective writing. The elements are the same as for any kind of story, nonfiction or fiction. You need a good hook. Your story must rush to an engaging moment before the reader has a chance to ask that so-what question. That moment probably lives inside a scene I get to see as the reader. Many people have taken their kids on a two-week vacation in a car. The hook can be the quest for more than just pictures, souvenirs, and dog-eared programs. Those two weeks might be a way to find a proof of love, like a detective story. But only if that proof is elusive. I took a two-week road trip one summer across Midwest ballparks. But the perfect game was not the one I planned. Life is like that, if you’re lucky, and can stay out of your own way on the road.
“We just don’t automatically have the kind of mind-blowing material that results in the “tell me more” situation right off the bat,” Balzer says in her book. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have the material to write a fascinating memoir— it just means we have to battle the so-what moment using some of the other tools in our toolbox.”
The sharpest tool in that box is theme, but it’s also the most elusive. You can work a great deal of the way into a memoir, or any book, before you discover the story’s theme. This is the spine that Sydney Pollack described when he was telling the story of how he directed Out of Africa. “We spent about two years trying to find what I always call a spine or an armature of this piece. Sort of trying to distill the idea down to one or two clear sentences that could be a guidepost,” he said. “What is it really about? We finally settled on possession. Freedom versus obligation. If I say I love you, what price am I expected to pay?” Out of Africa is based on Karen Blixen’s memoirs, by the way.
“Most best-selling memoirs, if you were to boil the story down to their core, probably have the same story as someone who lives down the street from you, or as someone who works in your office,” Balzer writes. The memoir writer has to mix many additional elements into their book to compel a reader to click the buy button for $12, or carry that paperback to the register. The elements must come from the craft of writing, especially style and voice.