The Story YOU Want to Tell

Lots of people are interested in writing memoir. And, because it’s memoir, they think it’s going to be easy. The whole story’s there, isn’t it? You just have to now put it down on the page.

But memoir doesn’t work like that – and this applies if you’re writing autobiography, a biography of somebody else, or a family, community, or business history. Yes, the facts are all there. But that doesn’t make for story – at least not usually.

If you’re going to write memoir, you need to work out what your story is. No, it can’t just be everything that’s happened to you in your life, no matter how interesting and exciting that is, e.g. you might’ve been born in a warzone, raised by wolves, educated by poachers, escaped to be brought up by nuns, recruited from tertiary education by MI6, foiled terrorist plans time and time again, got married, had a kid, donated a lung, became a teacher, grew old, planted a rose garden, and in a nursing home wrote your memoirs.

Amazing, right? It’s the story of your life.

Well, no. It is your life but that doesn’t make for story. It makes for a bunch of stuff that happened.

You need to find what your story is going to be.

Recently, I watched the Hoges miniseries – about iconic Australian comic and actor Paul Hogan – and I was struck by how aimless it was. Yes, it seemed all the important bits in Hogan’s life were documented. And some of it was interesting. But it went nowhere, just following Hogan from one episode in his life to the next. The makers of the miniseries must’ve been aware of this issue structurally, as they bookended the miniseries with Hogan performing a routine for loved ones, looking back at his life, and being at peace with what he’d done. This was meant to give it a sense of completion, but it was artificially contrived – particularly since Hogan never really sought completion as a goal, and always seemed relatively content with where he was at pretty much every stage of his life. So how can you find something you’re neither looking for, or need?

Compare that to, for example, Never Tear Us Apart: The Untold Story of INXS. Here, we saw how INXS struggled playing pub gigs, grew to become the biggest rock band in the world, how it began to unravel, before culminating with Michael Hutchence’s death. There’s a clear journey there – the rise and fall of this great Australian band, and what each of the band members went through on that journey. We have a clear, beginning, middle, and end, a clear direction the story has taken and a logical completion to the story of this band’s life (or, at least, a completion of this chapter).

Open, the autobiography of tennis champion Andre Agassi, doesn’t have a rise and fall. It looks at how much of Agassi’s life was about people making his decisions for him – his father decided he’d play tennis and drove him; social status compelled him to try and maintain this glamorous image; his trainer nurtured him and took care of him. But Agassi ended the story by growing up, learning to be his own person, reconciling tennis’s place in his life, and using his experiences and resources philanthropically. It is effectively the story of Agassi growing comfortable in himself, and becoming his own person, rather than the one everybody else wanted him to be.

Your story has to be about something. If you’re coming out of a bad relationship and now working as a life coach, it might be about how you married thinking it would be for life, how it unravelled, and how you emerged from the hardship and learned to coach others. If you’re somebody who’s suffered from neurosis for a lifetime, it might be how you learned to deal with neurosis and come to a point you can now cope. If you’re a business owner, it might be about how you’ve run businesses, your successes and failures, and how those experiences have qualified you now to help others with their business.

With all these examples, there’s a beginning, middle, and end, rather than just a rambling discourse that goes on indefinitely.

So, if you’re writing memoir, think about the story you want to tell.

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