Monday, September 20, 2010

What Makes a Good Memoir?

So let’s just get this out of the way. I’m a big enough fan of Patti LuPone that I was at the bookstore on the day her memoir came out itching to buy a copy. When she was at Book Expo America (on the one day I didn’t go!), I politely texted three of our other agents asking if they might be able to get her to sign something for me (they did!). I’m a drama nerd, and while I’ve seen LuPone deliver some astonishing performances, the real reason I couldn’t wait to read the book is that she’s a bit of a…um…well, let’s say she’s a character. She has lots of personality. Lots. I mean, check her out stopping the show during a performance of Gypsy if you haven’t already.

Point is: she’s bigger than life, so she should have turned out a magnificent memoir. Right? Well, yes, she should have. So why didn’t she?

Turns out LuPone stumbled into the same traps that a lot of memoir writers do. Living an interesting life does not mean you’ll be able to write an interesting memoir. And relating facts chronologically does not an interesting narrative make. You need to be incredibly self-aware to write about yourself successfully. You need to set vanity aside: if you’re always trying to portray yourself in a positive light, you’re just posturing. You need to have a story to tell. A story. Having lots of little stories doesn’t count. There has to be something linking what you’re telling us, and we need to progress from beginning to middle to end. Otherwise, even the most interesting material can start to get dry (I’m looking at you, Bill Clinton). You also need to be a great writer. People sometimes seem to think that memoirs are easier to write than fiction. They shouldn’t be. If anything, the writing should be even better in a memoir than in a novel since you can’t just change the facts to make the story more interesting (I’m looking at you, James Frey).

Long story short: memoirs are harder than they look. And remember: never bore your readers.


  1. My understanding is a memoir should NOT be from beginning to end--I was born and tomorrow I die -- but should be a slice of what the public will find interesting, concentrating on Elmore Leonard's "leave out the bits people skip."
    But do you make an exciting read, regardless of exact truth? Do people buy memoirs because they want "a good read," or because they want to know what happened to the author?

  2. i'm a memoir junkie. my latest favorite is john waters ROLE MODELS. he makes me wish i was sitting across from him at a coffee shop while he tells me everything he wrote about. he's funny and interesting and self deprecating and pulls it all together perfectly.

  3. Um, gotta ask . . . it seems this image was taken during one of Ms. LuPone's performances. Was the pic that stopped the performance? How'd you get it?

  4. I've copied the following from another blog. It shows how to get two memoirs for the price of one. First a totally false accusation, second a retraction, what will she do for the third memoir?

    But Maran’s tenth book will prove to be her most provocative – and controversial. My Lie, A True Story of False Memory, published last week by Jossey-Bass/Wiley, tells the story of how Maran falsely accused her father of sexual abuse. Her volatile charges, made in the middle of the height of the recovered memory movement, split her family apart, denied her children a relationship with their grandfather, and shaped Maran’s reality for more than a decade.

    Years later, Maran realized she had made the whole tale up, and My Lie recounts how she reached out to her father and family for forgiveness. My Lie also attempts to make sense of the recovered memory movement that rocked the nation in the late 1980s and led to numerous high-profile trials, like the infamous McMartin preschool case. Maran discusses how a generation of feminists attempted to bring incest and sexual abuse out of the shadows and how some overly zealous prosecutors and therapists exploited the recovered memory phenomenon.