Should I write what I know?

According to commonly given advice, the popularity of a memoir rests on the fame of a person writing it. However, the argument against “writing what you know” is often refuted by an excellent rebuttal in the form of a well written memoir about a mostly ordinary life.

Before embarking on this kind of book you are supposed to ask “How unique and interesting are my life experiences?” Recently there have been a number of memoirs and memoir-based movies recounting childhoods filled with the threats of danger in an environment of political persecution or a dysfunctional family. I have found that this doesn’t guarantee a good book. I’ve watched memoir based films, such as Persepolis based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi and Moonlight based on an unpublished semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Although these were interesting films at points, there was no resolution at the end. Each main character experienced suffering as they grew older but seemed to remain immature and without goals. The end of the character arc did not exist, which left me dissatisfied.

Instead one should probably ask “How good am I at learning lessons from my own experiences?” People can suffer innocently due to the actions of others, or suffer due to their own selfish behavior. A memoir must acknowledge both of these causes. Good examples of this are Educated, an account by Tara Westover the daughter of survivalist Mormons, and Children of the Land, detailing the life of a Mexican immigrant family by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Sometimes I did feel like I waded through extensive minor details of the ordinary parts of their lives. However, as I continued reading I saw each of these memoirs was heading somewhere. I kept reading to find out what would happen and the details took on their own life.

Most importantly, you need to distill the story of your life to have plot with a conflict and a resolution. Often it is not just the story of your life, but of your family’s life, too. So, a story that is only a lurid string of dirty secrets is not a good idea. You must describe your upbringing creatively, honestly and with consideration for those around you. I should feel like I am there beside you. However, I should not sense that you are trying to force me to see things from your viewpoint.

That is the real challenge of writing what you know.

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