"Memoir is not about you, or me. It’s about something universal. That is, if you want anyone else to read it. Good memoir takes on something universal and uses you as the illustration of that larger idea." 
~ Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project

Have you ever been with someone who has woken up from a dream and tried to recount it to you? Your husband, let's say, surfaces from a particularly vivid dream and is fascinated by the bizarre string of happenings that played out in his head overnight. He fumbles around trying to recount it to you, grasps to recall all the strange details, and you (if you are anything like me) cannot escape this conversation fast enough. While the dreamer finds it all riveting and strangely symbolic, the story has no meaning for anyone else. And while most of us might spend a few minutes listening politely, the truth is that we would just as soon listen to a recitation of all the cities in Burkina Faso that begin with the letter H. All we want to do is change the subject. Or turn on the blender. Or both.

Unfortunately, an unsuccessful memoir can be a similar experience: fascinating for the writer and dullsville for everyone else.

Your story matters to you because it happened to you. It has stayed with you because it means something to you. And if you would like your story to matter to someone else, it must have meaning for them.

So first, it's important to gain clarity on what your story means to you. Not what happened, but why it continues to matter. Your story does not need to have a message -- in fact, beware of this: it's bludgeoning for the reader to feel that you're campaigning for them to get something -- but it does need to speak of something higher than simply the events themselves.

What is your story about?

The simplicity of this question belies the complexity of the answer required. Because if your answer doesn't lift beyond your experience--it's about my wacky childhood; it's about my six years in Cambodia--it's not finished.

Here's what I mean:

Let's say you are writing about growing up with a crazy mother in extreme poverty and isolation in rural Nova Scotia. That is the ground story, and it's meaningful to you because you lived it. Regardless of its capacity to shock or entertain the reader, a simple recounting of the tale will not be enough to allow people to derive meaning from it. So ask yourself this: why would a reader choose to relive such a childhood with you? Is there something else to be found there? Something that will make it worth reliving with you? Might there also be a story of compassion in there, an understanding you've developed since discovering the complexities of your mother's life, a forgiveness or acceptance you've found? Might it be a story about how you learned to be generous in life and love in spite of such a childhood? What is the bigger story?

Your story is the ground story, but what is the writing in the sky?

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild is about her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, but it is also, more importantly, about loss: how she managed to live beyond the loss of her mother and through her example, how we all manage to live beyond painful losses.

In memoir, we do not write about ourselves as through ourselves. Ideally, our experiences are passages to and illustrations of something far greater than our little lives. It’s not that our little lives aren’t important—they are—but if we would like our writing to be more than an episodic recounting of something that happened, then we need to look to and serve something greater than ourselves.

Readers will be happy to walk through your story if they feel there is something to be gained from the experience: a deeper understanding of a person or situation, perhaps; unexpected beauty or inspiration; a perspective that makes them see something freshly—whatever it might be. Readers will even be willing to slog through emotional swamps and bogs with you if you also guide them, at some point, to the highest hilltop of your psyche and show them the view of the same situation from there.

So when you consider the answer to the question—what is my story ABOUT?—be sure to look up beyond the pieces of your life's puzzle. Consider the idea that your experience is a personal example of a bigger, more universal, story.


FOR NEXT WEEK: Return to a piece you have already written OR choose a new scene/story/prompt and start fresh. Either way, re/write with an eye on the larger story beyond your personal one. You don’t necessarily need a bold, clear answer at first. In fact, be open to the possibility that the story is about something far different from what you initially imagined it was. Lastly, don’t get too hung up on this. If the answer doesn’t come, just play in the story. See where it takes you. Let it surprise you. The simple act of asking the question may be enough to open the piece to larger possibilities.


Don't worry if this 'sky writing' isn't immediately apparent, or if you feel confused or overwhelmed. That's why we're here together. And among the many other adventures we are going to take in this course, ascending the cliffs of your story in pursuit of its highest meaning and ensuring readers are able to find meaning there will be among the primary ones.