Memorable Memoirists: What makes a good storyteller?

If you’ve ever been stuck at a party listening to someone else’s rambling personal anecdote, you know how important a good storyteller is to a good story. I saw two very different memoirists with recent books speak last month at Brookline Booksmith. Congressman Barney Frank provided additional color for his deeply personal and political book, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage. And Jounalist Marja Mills intimated the details of how she came to write The Mockingbird Next Door, a story of her friendship with reclusive author Harper Lee. For me, the juxtaposition of these different storytellers highlighted some of the critical elements of producing a good memoir. Thinking of sharing your life with the masses? Here are some components to consider:

  • Interesting Subject Matter. A personal anecdote or experience becomes a story worth telling in memoir format when it is not only unique but when something surprising happens. Being a long-serving Jewish and gay Congressman is unique but the surprise in Barney Frank’s story comes from his recognition that, after decades in an environment of intolerance and disgust for his sexuality, in his words: “being gay is now much more socially acceptable than being a politician.” He noted that after working on legislation that would promote equal rights, Frank is now committed to improving the public’s idea of the value of public policy. “If politics aren’t popular, we will not have the quality of life we want,” Frank said.
  • Critical Details. Any story falls flat without detail. Marja Mills’ described the dusty country roads of Monroeville, AL and how it continues to house remnants of the early 20th century town in which Harper Lee spent her childhood and was inspired to write To Kill a Mockingbird. She provides an intimate look inside the home of Harper’s late sister, Alice Finch Lee. Crammed with books, outfitted with cozy chairs and ready to host conversation amid coffee and southern hospitality.
  • Internal Change/Growth. This could also be called “the so what” of your personal story. A day-by-day account of an interesting time of your life filled with colorful details falls short of being a powerful memoir. The story is as much about what slice of truth you chose, where the story begins and ends, and the meaning you made of that. One way to think about this is to identify the change from the beginning and the end of your story and its significance on you and the world around you.

Sharing personal stories takes courage. For anyone embarking on the memoir journey, I encourage you to listen to those who’ve already taken that plunge -- Brookline Booksmith has a few memoirists on its events line-up -- and check out GrubStreet's memoir classes. And if you really want to test the waters, corner a friend or neighbor at an upcoming barbeque and pay attention to the moment their eyes glaze over in your story – that’s what to cut.  

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