Your memoir may be well-written; it may be dramatic, funny or sad, but what makes a reader fall in love with your story is you, the narrator. When I take deep pleasure in a book, especially a memoir, it’s because I enjoy the author’s company; I like hanging out with her.
In politics, journalists and voters discuss a candidate’s “likability.” But what makes a narrator likable? I’ve been thinking about this, and have come up with five tips to insure that readers return to your book again and again, place it on a favorite shelf and wait impatiently for your next one to come out.
1. Write with Heart
Writing with heart doesn’t mean you have to be serious, but it does mean you have to be honest with your readers. Don’t write to show how witty you are, although your wit may be wicked and add a lot to the story. It may even be the story. But writing with heart means writing with the intention to let nothing come between you and your reader, to tell the truth in the best way you possibly can. Let the reader hear your heart beating; share with her (and with yourself) who you really are.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously
Last week I had a dream that there were two me’s (what a nightmare!) Seriously, when I realized I was dreaming, I decided to get a good look at myself since there were, after all, two of me. But the other “me” kept running impishly away. I knew that she would continue to outrun and outwit me, so instead of chasing her, I invited her to join me in a playful dance. We linked arms, giggling, and danced around the room just as you might with a close friend at a party.
There is probably more than one way to interpret this dream, but to me it says, let your lighter side come out and play! Your writing will be more compelling if you are able to laugh or smile at yourself from time to time. Even the darkest story benefits from the writer’s wry or funny perspective. It’s a way to connect with your readers – a moment of shared humanity.
- Take your reader by the hand
The reader is a friend or companion on a journey with you. Take her by the hand and let her walk with you through sunshine, fire, or rain (as James Taylor would say).
Recently I decided, with great reluctance, to abandon a memoir I was reading halfway through. The book was clever and well-written. The problem for me is that the author wrote as if every thought that entered her mind on every conceivable subject was monumentally fascinating (something we are all probably guilty of at times, which is why it’s important not to take ourselves too seriously.) This aspect of the memoir made me feel I was missing the real story, that the writer was not leveling with me. She’d been seduced by her own cleverness and in the process had left me, the reader, behind.
- Don’t become intoxicated by the sound of your own voice
This is related to #3, above. As Annie Dillard put it, “You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arm, like a drunk, and say, “And then I did this and it was so interesting.” Have respect for your reader’s intelligence, time, and discrimination. Trimming and shaping your memoir is like cutting out pieces of fabric to sew a dress– while the unused cloth falls away. But don’t feel bad; those colorful discarded scraps could be the inspiration for a brand-new story.
- Don’t try to please others
This sounds like a contradiction to tip #4, but what I mean by this is don’t let yourself be influenced by a fantasy of what you think readers want to hear, what will draw them in, or put them off. It’s never more important to be genuine than when writing your memoir.
So relax, be yourself, and bring your readers into your mind and heart and they will be your traveling companions for many books to come.
Note: A version of this post first appeared in womensmemoirs.com