I handed my friend J some of my favorite books on memoir, including Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir and Beth Kephart's Handling the Truth. J was an accomplished writer already: she'd had a YA novel traditionally published and also had placed essays with national publications. But this was her first foray into memoir writing, and I could tell she was struggling.
"It's a memoir about my dad," she said, then listed several angles she was hoping to include in her book. Red flags went off in my head. I'd been down that road before with clients and also in my own writing process. There's a natural temptation to want to throw everything in, which often comes from one of two places: First, the feeling that this is your ONLY chance to share everything you want to say. And/or second, you really don't know what you want to say so you'll say it all!
"What's the one thing you want people to walk away from your story knowing?," I said to J after listening to her for a while longer."Get clear on that one thing and then take out anything that doesn’t apply."
The One Thing Rule is simple to explain, but difficult to execute. Simply put, it's the through-line, the organizing principle of your book. It's what you as the author have come to say. I often tell my book coaching clients to imagine they are addressing a crowd standing on a soapbox: what message are they sharing with their audience? What does their audience need to hear?
This rule applies to all pieces of writing: novels, college application essays, blog posts, prescriptive nonfiction, and memoir. What is the ONE THING the piece is about?
The first reason the One Thing Rule is difficult to execute is that writers often DO NOT WANT TO CHOOSE! They have many things they have come to say! There's not just one thing!
Think of your memoir as A memoir, not YOUR memoir. It's not the one and only chance you will get to share your story with the world. Choose the one thing to focus on for this book and you can come back to your other through-lines for your next books.
This is a common problem, one I've certainly had myself. Sometimes we need to write to discover what we are writing! A more efficient way to approach this dilemma is to do a deep dive into some foundational questions. Start with your WHY: Why are you writing this book? What's compelling you? Who is it for? What do they need to hear?
In memoir, we need to do some soul searching into what the experience at hand really meant to us. What did we learn? How did we change? What did we discover?
Often the memoir writer needs some distance from the subject matter of her book to gain perspective. Memoirs written about a recent experience will likely suffer from the dreaded "and then this happened, and then this happened," a recounting of the facts of the situation rather the real story beneath the facts, the reason why we should care.
Coming back to my friend J, there's another book I need to lend her: Vivian Gornick's The Situation and the Story.
Look at your memoir (or your essay, novel, self-help book, or even blog post). Can you identify the "one thing" it is about? If yes, is this the one thing you have come to say? If you can't identify the one thing, chances are your piece needs to be more focused. Go ahead, be brave! You can choose the one thing!
And to prove that I walk the talk, the one thing this blog post is about is the importance of getting clear on the one thing your piece of writing is about. :)