For a month now I’ve been doing “Ask the Agent” — your chance to ask anything you want of a literary agent. We had one person write in to say, “A memoir is a deeply personal story covering many avenues of thought. My tell-all of escaping the mental imprisionment of American Fundamental Extremism (having been inadvertently exiled because I admitted to being gay) is hard to pigeonhole. How do I determine how to present it to its broadest advantage, and find an agent who can appreciate the scope of its message?”
Yeah, that’s too long. (The fact is, the comment was actually much longer, and meandered a bit.) But what you’re basically asking is, “How do I write a great memoir?” And the secret of success with memoir is to write it like a novel. A memoir isn’t an autobiography — who reads autobiography these days? An autobiography is a careful retelling of everything that occurred, so you’ll be spending a lot of time researching sources, and making sure each date is correct. A memoir is a reminiscence — the stories and themes that capture a place, a time, an event, a lesson, a life. So instead of writing it like a history textbook, you write it like a novel.
That means you’re going to need to create a story arc. Not all the details will fit. You figure out which details we need in order to see your story. And the story will reveal to you where to start, and where to end, what stories will be told, and what will be left out. There will be an inciting incident, and decisions that lead to changes, because that’s what creates a story. It will have characters, whom we care about, and they’ll say and do things that matter in some way. You’ll not just talk about what you did, and what it was like, but what you wanted. Goals will be pursued, and obstacles will rise up to impede those goals. Eventually, you (since this is your memoir) will change, and it’s that change in your beliefs that creates an interesting memoir. Like a novel, your memoir will offer the reader a great story to follow.
I’m not gay, so I can’t directly relate to your struggle with American Fundamentalism, but my daughter Molly is gay, so I have some first-hand experience with the situation. I understand the fatigue and frustration that comes with dealing with American evangelicalism — the continual emphasis on conversion, the worship of bible verses, the separatism that creates groups inside and outside the circle, the vitriol hurled at those who don’t embrace whatever the current holiness standards are, and more recently the embracing of contemporary American conservative politics (because you just CAN’T be a Christian unless you support 2nd Amendment rights and low Capital Gains taxes!). Yep — I get it. It can make for some ugly conversations. Molly is gay, and was born gay (as anyone who has known her can attest), and loves Jesus, and I have zero shame in saying that, or in embracing her as my own, since I believe God made her and loves her as she is. She doesn’t need to change or be cured or go through therapy. My daughter has a great personal story… but I don’t know if she has a memoir.
Just understand this: when you choose to write a memoir, you’re telling your story, and you have to make it a good story. You’re making your point by sharing your stories. So you can’t assume that just because something happened, readers will find it interesting. You can’t just offer an angry polemic. You can’t share a bunch of stuff that basically says, “Poor me.” It’s not a listing of events, it’s not your therapy, and you’re not perfect. You can’t make the book just about you and your life — it’s a story, meant to be shared, so it has to be a conversation with your readers.
I love memoir — it’s probably my favorite genre to read right now. But I know that writing a memoir is hard work, because you’re managing “telling the truth” with “telling a great story.” You want it to be correct and accurate, but you also want it to be strong and interesting and entertaining. So when you ask “how can I present my memoir to the broadest audience,” my answer is “tell great stories, answer the big questions, speak to the universal needs of people.” That will get the attention of readers (and of agents). I hope that helps.