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'Memoir Project' Gives Tips For Telling Your Story

Marion Roach Smith asks her memoir-writing students to look for little details that illustrate their stories, and through them, chart a course to broader themes.
Marion Roach Smith asks her memoir-writing students to look for little details that illustrate their stories, and through them, chart a course to broader themes.

Everyone has a story to tell, but writer and memoir writing instructor Marion Roach Smith says making those stories interesting and readable is harder than it looks.

In her memoir writing guide, The Memoir Project, Roach Smith argues that too many aspiring memoirists focus on cramming every memory onto the page, instead of focusing on relating their story to broader themes.

She tells NPR's Neal Conan that a useful memoir writing exercise is to consider what's worth including and what's best left out for the story you'd like to tell. She says that's what she did when she decided to write about her mother being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease when Roach Smith was 22-years-old. In the resulting memoir, Another Name For Madness,Roach Smith discussed her mother's alcoholism, but left out the details of her infidelity.

"I had a responsibility to tell a story about Alzheimer's," she says. When her mother was diagnosed in the '80s, Roach Smith says she believed Alzheimer's was on its way to becoming the greatest health care concern of the 20th and 21st centuries, and she felt adding details about her mother's infidelity would have taken the story in the wrong direction.

"These are the decisions all memoirists have to make," she says. "What goes in; what stays out."

She says memoir writing is about territory; about writing what you know. We each have many areas of expertise, but if you want anyone to read your memoir, the key is focusing on one.

Memoirs Vs. Autobiographies

In Roach Smith's mind, there's a big difference between an autobiography and a memoir.

"An autobiography is really the story of a whole life," she says. "A memoir, if you want someone else to be interested, should really be [about] an area of expertise within that life."

Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story is one of Roach Smith's favorite memoirs, and Knapp followed that up with a book about her relationship with her dogs. Knapp died in 2002 of lung cancer.

"Had she lived longer, I bet we could've gotten seven or eight great memoirs out of Caroline Knapp," she says.

On the other hand, she says it takes someone like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to write an autobiography.

"[She] can write that whole trajectory of [her] life story because I'm willing to run those bases of [her] life with [her]," Roach Smith says. As for the rest of us, "We will be successful in memoir[s] if we stick to one area of expertise at a time."

Writing With More Than Memories

And just because you're an expert on your own story doesn't mean you don't have to do any reporting.

"You have to do loads of it," Roach Smith says, in order to get the story right and put it in context.

For example, Roach Smith recently discovered her house was once a speakeasy. That makes her house — something she's ostensibly an expert on — really compelling to write about. But she'll still need to do research on her house and the Prohibition era to get the story straight.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.