Great Memoir is Bigger Than Your Story

By Robin Colucci The days of the “tell all” memoir are over. No one wants to read about how you were abused as a child, struggled with depression and drug addiction, got married too young, got divorced too old, and ultimately found God…unless you happen to be a celebrity. The public’s appetite for celebrity self-revelation appears still to be insatiable.

The main problem with the “tell all” is that it’s all been told. Since the 1970′s, we’ve read about the suicidal tendencies, terminal illnesses, miracle recoveries, and the redemptions of hundreds of story tellers. It’s still possible to be an unknown and get your memoir published, but it had better have a broader context than you.

If you look at the best selling memoirs, most are authored by celebrities and politicians. The ones that aren’t are written by ordinary people who made it into the news through extraordinary events, a great fairly recent example is Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger who safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson river after losing the plane’s engines to a collision with a flock of birds.

The rest are gems. Compelling, entertaining real-life stories that read like fiction written by people who were not household names before their books came out, and many still aren’t, but they are outstanding story tellers, and their stories give us more than just their experience. They provide access to realities most of us will never know, or a broader view of the world we think we know.

Agents are so sick of hearing how every up-and-coming writer’s memoir is the next Eat Pray Love that I’m not even going to use it is an example. (And yes, that means you shouldn’t mention it either when you pitch to agents).

Books I believe exemplify this include: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, by Susan Jane Gilman,  In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, by Neil White, and The Other Wes Moore, by Wes Moore.  Each of these books shares the author’s journey, but within the context of a larger story, a story with an impact that ripples outward, beyond one writer, and touches each of us in a profound, inescapable way.

I’d like to read your comments. What do you think characterizes great memoir?