Copywriter Q&A: Jessica Stautberg Discusses the Art of Writing an Unforgettable Memoir
COPYWRITER Q&A: JESSICA STAUTBERG DISCUSSES THE ART OF WRITING AN UNFORGETTABLE MEMOIR
With over a decade of writing experience, Jessica Stautberg has written content for everything from websites and blogs to books and press releases. At The Writers For Hire (TWFH), Jessica serves as our lead copywriter, and is also one of our experts on writing memoirs and autobiographies.
In this installment of our Copywriter Q&A series, we talked to Jessica about what defines a memoir, and asked for her tips and advice for ensuring that your memoir is unforgettable.
TWFH: Let’s start with the basics. What’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?
JS: A memoir has a more specific topic or time period. For example, a veteran might write a memoir about his/her experiences during war, or a recovering alcoholic might write about his/her struggle with the disease. An autobiography encompasses more of a person’s entire life story.
TWFH: How do you decide if you want to write a memoir or an autobiography?
JS: Ask yourself what you want the reader to know about you. Are you giving them an account of your entire life? Or are you trying to give them a sense of what it feels like to be, for example, someone struggling with cancer treatment/growing up in poverty/breaking a barrier, etc.
TWFH: Can you talk a little about how memoir and fiction are similar?
JS: In addition to being more specific and not all encompassing, a memoir relies more on emotion and feeling to convey the writer’s experiences. So, it might read more like fiction by using more metaphors, imagery, etc.
TWFH: How much “truth” does a memoir need? Is it more important to tell the facts or to get the “essence” of the story and make sure that the emotion comes across?
JS: I think both are important, but people can’t remember all the minute details that writers often use to create a scene or convey a feeling. When writing a memoir, I think you should get the big, important facts right (as much as possible), and take liberty with descriptive details and dialogue.
TWFH: Is there ever a point when you can embellish too much or take too many liberties? A point where it’s no longer a memoir?
JS: Yes, I think once you’re starting to fictionalize some of the bigger plot points of the memoir, then you’re heading into “fictional work based on real life” territory.
TWFH: How do you keep a memoir interesting – especially if you’re writing one for an “average” person (not a celebrity or someone who has lived a super-exciting life)?
JS: Apply some of the elements of a novel to your memoir: You have a protagonist with a specific motivation who faces conflicts over the course of the story, culminating in a climax and resolution at some point. Write about your own struggles and really fill out a peak point in your story.
For example, maybe something like a divorce, a medical procedure, or a new career changed the course for your life. Give the reader all the drama surrounding that event. Talk about the relationship conflicts before the divorce and the strain on your life during and after it. Talk about your health issues, feelings, and fears before your medical procedure and the road to recovery afterwards. And talk about how you overcame the obstacles of your career change.
TWFH: What are some common subjects/themes for memoirs?
JS: Coming of age; friendship; overcoming adversity; parenthood; survival; adjusting to new circumstances; hard work; grief; faith…
TWFH: What kind of research goes into writing a memoir?
JS: It doesn’t hurt to research things like plot creation and structure so that you can properly organize your story. Also, I always think it’s useful to read books that are similar to the one you want to write.
TWFH: Do you ever use historical research/facts to pad or enhance your memoirs?
JS: It’s sometimes helpful to do historical research while writing a memoir. Often, the writer’s memory will fail on certain historical details that become important in positioning their story in time. For example, maybe your memoir includes fleeing the war-torn city of your childhood. You probably don’t remember exactly which months out of the year those events occurred, and maybe you weren’t aware of the political events that were important to the scenario. It’s helpful to the reader to look up those details and include them.
TWFH: How do you handle writing about other people in a memoir? Do you need to ask permission? Use fake names? Should you let them read what you’ve written? Is it OK to create composite characters and use them as stand-ins for real people?
JS: If you say something overly negative about someone, then you open yourself up to defamation allegations. If someone plays a large part in your memoir, then it doesn’t hurt to ask permission. It also doesn’t hurt to have a lawyer review your book, just in case.
TWFH: How do you organize a memoir? Do memoirs have to be chronological?
JS: Memoirs do not have to be chronological! That being said, autobiographies don’t either. You can certainly shift back and forth in time in either genre, although I think it’s more common in memoirs.
TWFH: Do you have any suggestions for avoiding confusion when shifting back and forth between time periods?
JS: Many memoirs will add a date and place at the beginning of a new section to help orient the reader. I like to do section breaks and then add a label like “July 6, 1967, New York City,” for example.
TWFH: What elements do you think are necessary for a good memoir?
JS: Memoirs need a theme, which we discussed above. It also needs conflict to keep it interesting, and a writing style that reflects you (since the reader will probably picture you telling the story). It also needs storytelling elements such as setting, character development, and a plot.
TWFH: Do you have any other suggestions for people who want to write a memoir?
JS: Figure out what lessons you’ve learned in your life and use your memoir to try to teach your reader those lessons in an interesting way.
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