Memoir Tip: Don’t be a Hero in every Story

When people ask me what I do and I tell them I ghostwrite memoirs, they often ask if I write celebrity memoirs. Actually, what I do is very different from your typical celebrity memoir, because unlike celebrity ghostwriters, I tell my clients: don’t be the hero of every story. This is a handy memoir tip that should set you on the right path.

Most celebrity memoirs would not be at all interesting if the subject wasn’t already famous. Case in point, the latest one I read: Megyn Kelly’s “Settle for More.”

The book was pretty interesting up until chapter 14, where all her problems in life were solved by a few months of therapy and a dream husband. I stopped reading Tina Fey’s memoir right about that point actually, too.

When I realize your greatest problem in life is deciding whether or not to have two children or just the one, I remember I’m only reading this because you’re a celebrity. That’s just not a riveting plot dynamic.

Memoir tip: Don’t Be a Hero

Megyn’s book reminded me of some issues I face in my ghostwriting work, too–it’s important to point out the traumas and dramas that made you who you are. But don’t overemphasize them so that it seems like nothing but trauma ever happened to you. At the same time, it’s important that you follow this memoir tip: refrain from being the hero of every story in your life.

Memoir tip: you don’t have to psychoanalyze your life

When writing a memoir, it’s really easy to fall into talking about how some childhood experience shaped every decision you made afterward, but it’s a mistake. The truth is, people do crazy/stupid/cruel/mindless things for a wide variety of mostly-unknowable reasons. It’s okay not to know why you did stuff, and it’s not necessary to analyze and pinpoint what a psychologist would say about why you did it.

As long as you remember the reason you gave yourself at the time, that’s all readers need to know. You see, those readers are the amateur psychologists and sleuths that are solving the mystery of why you did what you did. If you analyze yourself, it leaves nothing for the reader to do!

Memoir tip: It’s Okay If You Didn’t “Suffer”

In Megyn’s case, she was bullied in seventh grade, but by eighth grade everything was better and by high school she was the popular captain of the cheerleading squad. It’s true that childhood hurt never goes away, but in the case of Megyn, she brought up her memory of the bullying so many times afterward, whenever she faced adversity, that it really felt like she was trying to prove she had “suffered.”

In this case, the effort to prove she had suffered kind of discredited the suffering itself. What I found more interesting than the bullying episode was the time she spent as a successful attorney, because the hours were so intense and the pressure so massive, and yet her success so great, that she actually grew to hate her life–all because she was so good at it.

Fascinating Subcultures Really Add to a Memoir

Now that paradox, to me, is interesting, especially considering the fact that other successful lawyers suffer in exactly the same way. Attorneys have lived like this for decades, yet nobody seems to have thought to stop the crazy cycle of lawyer abuse, including the high-powered lawyers themselves.

Attorneys have got the money and power to establish whatever work culture they want, but they don’t think to change things, even to make their own lives better, save their marriages, prevent suicide, increase happiness. To me, this speaks to something in human nature.

Perhaps the pride of being good at your job feels like something essential to survival. People will do anything to keep the status of being on top–and yet, that lifestyle is exactly what makes lawyers die of heart attacks. Now that, to me is interesting. I could ponder it all day. 

If I had written Megyn’s book, Settle for More, I would have focussed less on her perfect marriage (a lot less), less on the don’t-hate-me-because-I’m-beautiful theme that seems determined to prove she’s riddled with angst while climbing the ladder of success (meh), and more on her observations of the subcultures she has been a part of. (I get more raw about this memoir in later blog posts here and here.)

Memoir Tip: Don’t Be Perfect

She hit on something interesting in the chapters about being an attorney, but after that, things went downhill. There wasn’t enough failure or struggle in her life to make the book interesting, yet she tried to find trauma where there really wasn’t much. That only made it worse. She writes about learning to be vulnerable and not so guarded, not so “perfect,” yet this book isn’t much of an example of that.

Megyn’s failures in the book are mild and always superceded by fantastic learning experiences. The truth is: reading about someone else’s amazing success actually gets dull. Sure, readers pick up a few tips here and there, but mostly a book like that makes them feel like their own lives aren’t good enough.

When I read a memoir, I want to see the subject be willing to play the fool–I can’t believe I screwed that up! I did the whole thing ass-backwards! Why do I make the same mistake over and over?

Memoir Tip: Reveal Flaws

This is why I challenge my ghostwriting clients when they tell me the big success stories of their lives. I ask what risks they took, how other people reacted, and which parts of it they screwed it up, not just how they succeeded. (Here are a screenwriter’s tips on writing a complex character. Let that character be you!)

Usually, my clients are surprised. That’s not the way they’re used to telling the story, but it’s quite dull when you’re the hero of every story. Be the lousy bum who stumbles through everything, and readers might just get past chapter fifteen. 

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