I love it when students share their concerns with me, and ask questions that I am sure many writers ask themselves. Today I am sharing one such question (with my student’s consent) because it is an important one for anyone who embarks on writing a personal story: 

Question: There are a lot of terrible things going on in the world and I feel selfish for writing about myself and my “problems.” There are probably millions of people who would switch lives with me to get out of their war-torn countries and have a roof over their head. We are constantly beaten over the head with bad news, and it just seems like my story is just adding to the seemingly never ending bad news that comes out of life. Sure, what happened to me was a traumatic and life-changing experience, but I think some people would be willing switch places with me to alleviate their own suffering. Have you dealt with these issues while writing memoir? If so, how have you handled them?

Anne Frank in 1942
My Answer: I would say most writers, and indeed most writers of personal stories, be it memoir or personal essay, ask themselves these questions: Is my story worthy of being told?

In my opinion, everybody’s story is worthy of being told, and it is not only horror and trauma that are worthy of a story, but rather, it is much more important to tell a story of survival, like yours, and it is also important to tell stories of dealing with everyday life, as that’s what concerns most of us. We want to learn from memoir, want to gain insight, and we find the human connection in the universal experiences we share.

Stories of war are one thing, but many of us are fortunate not to have to live through something like that. Of course stories that give that historical record are hugely important, but stories of surviving and constructing a new life after a serious illness or injury are much more likely to happen to anyone in our society, and are therefore valuable.

A memoir does not have value just because it tells a terrible story; it has value because of what it meant to the narrator, and how the narrator overcame whatever difficulties were put in his path. A good story can be on a big topic, or it can be on a small topic; what matters is whether it has enough universality in it for the reader to make a connection, and to take something away from the reading experience.

Many memoirs are of course sensational, especially memoirs by politicians or celebrities, but in most of those cases, the point of the book is to set the record straight, or to tell their side of events that are probably already known to the reader. The interest here is the inside scoop, or “my part of the story,” rather than insight or “what I learned from this.”

With a literary memoir, the point is insight and meaning from whatever experience is being related, and hopefully the writer is able to offer those insights so that someone who might be going through a similar experience can learn something, or someone who will never go through it will get an idea of what it’s like.

Think of the most popular book about the Holocaust: The Diary of Anne Frank. Of course her fate was terrible, and yet that book is really quite ordinary, it shows that a 13-year-old girl is still concerned with boys and everyday issues, even if she’s in hiding from the Nazis. People can connect with that much more than any history book, because everybody was 13 years old at some point.