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Beyond being an excellent writer and having a fascinating life, other elements can help your memoir stand out.
Some common themes for memoirs include dealing with the Vietnam experience; losing a child to a terminal illness or suicide; coping with a physical handicap; leaving one's husband or family in midlife to start over in an exotic location; finding God; and recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction. Many people can relate to one of these experiences, but what twist does your story have to set it apart from other memoirs that cover the same general ground?
One common memoir theme is the diagnosis, treatment and survival of cancer. Susan Rust, who is writing her memoir based on her breast cancer experiences, has a unique story in several ways. Besides coping with the traditional circumstances revolving around mastectomy (a double one, at that) and chemotherapy, she is a divorced mom who dates. How does a woman in her mid-40s tell a man she's dating that she has no breasts? And when should she tell him? Rust's talent for humor writing adds another element that the average breast cancer survivor story lacks.
It's the rare writer who can open a story with the day someone was born, grab the reader's attention and, more importantly, keep it. Many successful memoirists choose instead to use fiction writing's flashback technique. They start in the middle of the story, then use flashbacks to fill in the gaps.
Edward Ball, author of the award-winning Slaves in the Family, initially thought he'd write his family history memoir in chronological order, but his editor suggested he use a "flash back/flash forward structure—one chapter in the past, one chapter in the present," which worked very well to connect the story and the reader with both living and past generations.
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