Some Criteria of a Completed Memoir

May 3, 2011

Years ago I got into one of those nasty conversations with a person that I do my best to avoid.  He heard that I taught memoir.  And he made the assumption that, in memoir, anything goes, and in memoir, all a writer does is go on and on about their lives in any way they want to.

I disagreed.  I said that, though some people might choose to write that way, that memoir, as a form, can be discussed and described and that we can tell the difference, quite easily between students memoirs that “work” and those that don’t yet work.

He was skeptical about my capacity to make that kind of judgement.  I told him that I was in the business of making judgements like that, and so were editors.

He said that any criteria to judge memoir had to be implicit — that you could just “feel in your guts” whether a work was finished or whether it needed more work.  I told him that most memoir writers, like most other writers, took their work through many revisions, and in each revision, the work developed complexity, that it is impossible for us to get our effects the first, second, third, perhaps even the tenth time round.  And I told him that I had a set of criteria in my head that I used to judge my own work, and that of students, as we passed through the stages of our work.

He thought this was a lot of hogwash, that I evaluated my own and other people’s memoirs on the basis of gut instinct and he challenged me to write down the criteria I use to determine whether my work is complete.

I’d culled a set of criteria from the many memoirs I’d read as I was preparing to write my first work.  I hadn’t codified them in any way, but this presented me with the opportunity to do so.  I don’t set these forth as the final word on memoir; I offer them merely as a tool that might be useful.  I review this list when I’m, say, about halfway through my process.  I surely don’t look at them at the beginning.  And I check them at the penultimate stage of the work.  Indeed, I’ve found that when an editor asks me to make changes, it’s because I haven’t paid close enough attention to one or another of the items on this list.  So here they are.

1.  A good memoir tells a good story; it deals with the issue of cause and effect in life either overtly or covertly; when things make no sense, that is grappled with as well.

2.  A good memoir “puts you there”; it is vivid, and specific.  It is cinematic, in some sense – the reader can “see” what’s happening.

3.  A good memoir shows an awareness of time – the time during which the experience takes place; the effect of the passage of time; how time helps us see things in new ways.  There is emphasis on both personal history, and on the historical context in which these events take place.  The memoir keeps the reader abreast of when the events are occurring.

4.  A good memoir treats the interrelationship of events and feelings.  It describes what the person felt then, what the person feels now; what the person knew then, what the person knows now.  It describes events, feelings, reflections, and the significance of events.  (It doesn’t merely recount events.)  Oftentimes it uses images and metaphors and allusions to express the inexpressible or the difficult-to-express layers of meaning.

5.  A good memoir indicates an awareness of the patterns and repetitions in a life.

6.  A good memoir has a consistent set of images; its images aren’t trite; they’re original, and they’re use of them in the narrative enlarges its scope.

7.  A good memoir is written in an authentic voice. One way to achieve authenticity is to avoid oversimplification, generalizations, cryptic and elliptical treatment of events.  There is something unique, fresh, and new about the way the experience is recounted.  It can’t be vague, trite, general, or generic.

8.  A good memoir is precise and clear.  If part of the story is hazy, or ambiguous, the writer indicates in some way that it is ambiguous because life is, and not because the writer has failed at making the piece clear.

9.  A good memoir is detailed: it tells/shows what the experience of the life has been; it doesn’t simply tell the life: it reveals the life.

10.  A good memoir focuses on a set of meanings or themes, and it “cuts to the chase” so that the reader knows precisely what the work is about.  (The work can’t be about the life in general.)

11.  A good memoir is written in such a way that someone who knows absolutely nothing about your life can understand it.  This is difficult.  It means “creating characters” out of the people in your life using the techniques, often, of fiction.  Writing explicitly about ourselves and the people we know is often more difficult than creating fictional characters.

12.  In a good memoir, there can be no coyness, nothing withheld from the reader.  If you introduce a subject, you must describe it fully, or tell the reader you cannot write about it.  If there is a layer of meaning that you choose not to discuss – and this is your right – and if it forms part of the cause and effect of the narrative, you must find another way to show the reader why things happened the way they did.

13.  A good memoir must be internally consistent in terms of its story, its style, unless shifts in style indicate changes in the life or in insights about the life.  If there are huge discrepancies, they must be accounted for.

14.  In a good memoir, there must be some shift, some change, in the understanding of this life’s trajectory.  If there is stasis, it must be accounted for. Memoirs written “in media res” – in the middle of something – need not seek a false resolution.  But some shift in understanding seems imperative.

15.  In a good memoir, the characters must be fully realized: they can neither be idealized nor vilified nor trivialized.  If they are, this must be accounted for. You cannot be the saint in your own memoir: you must be real.

16.  In a good memoir (as in every piece of writing), every word, mark of punctuation, space break, is there by choice not by change. And this means that by the end of the process, the writer has made a conscious decision about every element of the work.

17.  In a good memoir, there must be some relationship between form and meaning.

18.  A good memoirist remembers that the point of view in a memoir is, of necessity, the unreliable narrator but a credible witness to her/his life’s story.  (Every “I” is unreliable in some way.)  So a good memoir must inform the reader about what is conjecture, assumption.

19.  A good memoir deals with desire – with what people want: with what they do to get what they want; with what they want helps them or hinders them; with how people in the memoir don’t want the same things and what that means.

20.  And, as in all good storytelling, a shorthand way of saying all this is that attention is paid in equal measure to the “who, what, when, where, and why” of the narrative.


14 Responses to “Some Criteria of a Completed Memoir”

  1. Rashena Says:

    Woman you have GOT to get out of my head…this is so amazing! We just finished our second to last class last night and I workshopped that piece I had mentioned that I have been avoiding since I workshopped the first half. LOL

    Thank you so much. I am sending this to my wonderful classmates right now (and already told them to come by for some beautiful insight and instruction) as a pre-coda to everything we have learned!

  2. Layla Says:

    Thanks, Rashena for passing this along. Hugely helpful!!

  3. […] 1.  A good memoir tells a good story; it deals with the issue of cause and effect in life either ov… […]

  4. Julie Raynor Says:

    This is a fantastic detailed “list” that is every bit as relevant to a what must happen in a work of fiction as in memoir, or as you say, any piece of writing. I am going to print it as a checklist to use along with “my” editor’s letter. Many thanks for all your work here. Yours, Julie

  5. Anna Says:

    Wonderful! My WIP is a biography, and these points are entirely relevant and useful. I’ll use them.

    Let me guess…the guy who confronted you wasn’t a writer, was he? Or possibly a would-be writer, but clueless about the writing process.

  6. Jennifer Says:

    Wow, this list looks daunting. Although, I found my self nodding with agreement after reading each and every one. This really breaks down memoir and I think would really help those that can’t get the idea about memoir just being self important writing.

  7. ajuele Says:

    Coming to the end of a work I’ve found this list to be invaluable. In fact, I wish I had been thinking of this list earlier on in the writing process, so that I wouldn’t have had so much catching up to do at the end! Sometimes, I get so caught up with the technical aspects of writing that I forget that in the end, the memoir has to tell a good story. Your list combines the technical and emotional elements of memoir-writing superbly. Thank you so much, and I’ll keep this list in mind – not just the end of my next pieces, but at the beginning and middle as well.

  8. cathy Says:

    A list worth its weight in memorable words. I love lists, they are like the bones or skeleton of a piece of writing. Thank you!

  9. Emily Says:

    As an intern creative non-fiction editor, I love this list! I agree with your points, and wish that more people did. Thanks!

  10. Lisa Roth-Gulvin Says:

    Thank you Louise. This is exactly what I need to keep me on my path.
    Lisa Roth-Gulvin

  11. Aly B. Says:

    I thouroughly enjoyed reading this blg entry because of the context & format. I found it to be very informative, refreshing, and enjoying. The break down of the numbered steps in what a memoir should consist of was great. It was easier to read in comparison to a book and flowed better. It also kept my constant interest and made me eager to read on. In terms of knowledge, it also educated me further, a a fairly new student of memoir, of what a work of memoir should actually entail. Overall, it’s a great blog entry and everyone, new or old to memoir should definetely read, it’s also a great for future reference.

  12. Aly B. Says:

    I found this entry to be possiblly the most enlightening one out of the many I have read yet. It was very informative and truly laid great steps and points that a good memoir entails. I find it extremely useful and a great reference guide for time to come, especially when writing a memoir. I also like the reference to the interaction because of the real life feedback, that is always prevelant. I found the “guide” to be helpful and very concise which I believe will help me as a fairly new memoirist. It’s another entry that can help me mold my memoir, and will play a role in developing and constructing a great memoir.

  13. Scott Moul Says:

    Ms. DeSalvo,
    I am enjoying combing through your blogs. This entry, in particular, affords excellent insight into what an experienced memoirist considers to be a successful (and unsuccessful) memoir. I have only just begun the memoir process, and so I have many doubts as to my ability to fulfill the criteria that you outline here. I suppose that it is a good sign, however, that I understand the reasoning behind every item on your list. My biggest worries are in the following areas:

    1. “A good memoir has a consistent set of images, [which] aren’t trite” (item 6)—I feel like I am falling short, with regards to imagery. I shudder to imagine how trite the imagery I do manage to fit into my (so far very short) pieces may be. My currently small body of memoir work excuses me, I suppose, from being expected to show consistency in any aspect of my writing. Right now, it’s all experimental.
    2. “A good memoir focuses on a set of meanings and themes” (item 10)—I hope this will develop. I am a pretty reflective guy, so it should come. So far, I have no idea, whatsoever, what my first memoir’s overarching theme will be.
    3. “The authentic voice” (item 7)—I put a premium on authenticity; at times, to an unreasonable degree. Maybe it is perfectionism, maybe it is fear of failure, but I have used “lack of authenticity” to justify my pulling out of many activities, jobs, artistic pursuits, etc., throughout my life. I have a valid fear that once my current memoir class concludes, I will decide that I am not an “authentic” writer, and I will shelve the project. I don’t want to; I believe that writing is something that can enrich my life.

    Those are the most glaring worries that I immediately had when reading your list, but there are definitely more. Here’s hoping that writing them publically will go some way toward allaying my fears. Thank You.

  14. Tamara Gonzalez Says:

    As i’ve been weaving through you’re posts this may be hands down my absolute favorite as of yet. While I knew there are rules to writing a memoir I knew that they were more of an unspoken rule set. We’ve discussed what memoir is in class and also what it isn’t. It is very true that as a memoir writer you can “feel” when your memoir is right and when it isn’t quite right yet. This list of suggestions is perfect for my situation at this very moment. I am about half way done with my memoir but halfway done also means very confused with what I have actually written. You begin convinced you want to write about one thing and then your mind (or heart) takes over and your left with a piece of work that you never even knew you had in you. I will be using this list to help guide me through the final drafts of my memoir. Thank you!

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