“On Writing Well” …. Memoirs Without all the Whining

April 13th, 2006 by Larry Smith

In an interview on NPR, William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, reflects on the memoir in the Age of Frey. He says that since the 1990s, many memoirs have focused on victimhood (which also sounds like the Age of Oprah), rather than forgiveness … which he believes has been bad news for the great memoir form. Other sage advice upon this May’s 30th anniversary of Zinsser’s classic book: don’t write for your agent, your family, your dog, your lawyer—or anyone but yourself. Once you worry what your mom will think, says Mr. Z, you’re sunk. Here’s a slice of his essay excerpted on NPR’s site:

My final reducing advice can be summed up in two words: think small. Don’t rummage around in your past — or your family’s past — to find episodes that you think are “important” enough to be worthy of including in your memoir. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.