What Makes a Memoir “Good”? 11

WITH THE APPROACH of St Patrick’s Day, I got the idea that it would be appropriate — and fun — to write a piece about taking writing inspiration from Irish memoirs, meaning memoirs written by Irish authors. But I quickly realized that aside from Angela’s Ashes, that great classic of Irish life by Frank McCourt, I hadn’t really read much in the way of Irish memoir. So, scratch that idea, I thought. And yet …

The idea of taking inspiration from other memoir writers stays with me, because if you — if I — want to write good memoir, and by that I mean memoir worth reading, we must examine what we mean by “good,” and we must analyze examples of good memoir to determine the elements that make it good.

First, we have to figure out what we mean by “good” or “worth reading.” Leaving out the moral definitions, which have no application to this discussion (because whether or not a memoir is well written has nothing to do with its morality), the definition of “good” as an adjective includes: to be desired or approved of, having the qualities required for a particular role, and giving pleasure; enjoyable or satisfying. As a noun, “good” is something that provides a benefit or advantage to someone or something. Synonyms for “good” include quality, superior, excellent, superb, outstanding, enjoyable, pleasant, agreeable, pleasurable, brilliant, interesting, exceptional, and outstanding, to name a few.

So to be inspired by good — excellent, superb, outstanding — memoir, we need to understand why we would describe a memoir using those terms, take it apart, and then work to incorporate those elements in our own writing. There is, of course, some subjectivity in this process. What seems excellent to one person might be judged as ho-hum by another. You can only start where you are and go from there.

The best place to begin this examination process is your bookshelf. Go grab two or three of your favorite memoirs from your shelf. Open one and begin asking questions:

  • What draws you most to the story? Is it an experience you have in common with the narrator? Or does the story fascinate you because it is so outside anything you’ve experienced?
  • What is it about the writing style that appeals to you? Is the narrator’s voice formal or informal? Is the writing associative — jumping from one thought to the next — or linear and straight forward?
  • What word choices does the author make when describing people and places?
  • How does the writer use scene to keep you engaged?
  • What are some examples of scene, description, and reflection that strike you as excellent writing? How would you describe those examples to someone else?
  • What other observations do you make while reading?

Here are some of the elements I think make for good memoir:

  • An interesting or compelling or unusual life story, such as The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. Or a unique way of writing about a common experience, such as loss. One such memoir that comes immediately to mind is My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid.
  • Powerful descriptions of people and places that cause me to visualize those people and places in my mind.
  • Strong scenes full of concrete sensory details that allow me as a reader to viscerally experience what the narrator is experiencing.
  • Reflection that helps me understand how the narrator interprets her experiences.
  • The memoir outlines a journey in which the narrator changes, evolves, and learns, and it’s a journey I can relate to in some way.

What are your favorite memoirs, and what makes them good? Do you want to learn to write engaging memoir like those, but in your own voice? Do you wonder how to get started writing your own memoir?

The way to get started is, of course, to get started. On March 28, I’m launching a new online class, From Memories to Memoirs: Leaving a Legacy of Stories. In this class, we’ll use a variety of exercises and techniques to write compelling scenes and stories from our lives. Memoir begins with memory, but it doesn’t end there. I invite you to join me and other writers of all levels as we explore the nature of memoir and work to write stories worth reading.


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