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The Untitled Memoir

By Nicholas S. Racheotes

Once again, the other day—it doesn’t matter which other day—I was seized by the irrepressible desire to write a memoir. After all, even kids are doing it despite their having so little life to remember. So, I moused my way over to the favorite website for narcissists of all ages, I-Me-My-Mine.com, to find the best recipe for penning a memoir. It seems to include some parsley, sage, rosemary, and thymely advice, and here’s what I found:

If you want to write your memoir, then follow these easy steps. Despite what you think you learned from Saint Augustine, don’t call it your confessions. Nobody cares, because everyone is confessing and being forgiven for being the criminal victim of a victimless crime (whatever that means).

Despite the success of Malcolm X, don’t call your work an autobiography. That is strictly college-entrance essay material, and you’re not writing for the admissions office, but instead for a mass market if you can get it.

Despite the sales of Karl Ove Knausgård’s voluminous My Struggle, you probably won’t be that interesting for six volumes. Besides, you don’t want to be confused with Adolf Hitler, whose memoir bears the same title. Why didn’t someone tell Knausgård?

Whatever you do, keep from calling your outpouring a diary. First, you’re no Samuel Pepys, and second, you’ll sound too much like a teenage girl. Consequently, only your parents and your nosy siblings will be interested in the book.

Don’t write a travelogue because you’re neither Rebecca West nor are you John Steinbeck. Don’t use “Remembrance” in your title because you’re no Proust. Keep from calling your volumes Childhood and Youth because God knows you’re no Tolstoy. I was losing patience. The site was telling me what not to do, but when would I learn the how-to?

Finally, at the bottom of the page, came the recipe. Before you give your work a title, write it. Be sure to include as many of the following elements as you can squeeze in. Keep in mind that you do not have to be original. You might find that your experiences duplicate those of more famous memoirists who are no longer read, so go for it. To paraphrase a wise man: “A hack borrows. An artist steals.”

  • Step one: Convince your readers that you come from a dysfunctional family. Alcoholism, drug addiction, the death of a real or imagined parent, spousal abuse, abject poverty, or a dangerous setting are pure gold here.
  • Step two: If the above is linked to trauma that shaped your life, be sure to milk it for all it’s worth.
  • Step three: Introduce a character who can save you. Your long-suffering, hard-working single parent or your loving grandparent, perhaps. They should preferably be poor but honest. They could be a devoted same-sex or opposite-sex friend whom you love beyond carnal pleasure. All are possibilities here.
  • Step four: Though you dare not use the title, pour thousands of words into your struggle. The near-death experience, the being misunderstood by teachers and all sorts of adults, the flirtation with a life of crime, or the lapse into substance abuse are all overused—but no less captivating for their possibilities.
  • Step five: We’ve saved the most crucial element for last. Remember that you should neither see yourself as the world sees you nor see yourself as you see you. In short, lie, fabricate, dissimulate, contrive, spin a yarn, tell a tale. Life neither imitates art nor does art imitate life. Reality is slippery, so glide along its surface.

In the end, your memoir’s title will call out to you. Just make sure that it reminds potential readers of someone more famous than you, but doesn’t quite duplicate that person’s tale. By the way, I just tried clicking on the I-Me-My-Mine.com site, and it no longer exists; but then again, it never did. (Proof that lying pays if it carried you through this entire essay.)

— V —

Nick Racheotes is a product of Boston public schools, Brandeis University, and Boston College, from which he holds a PhD in history. Since he retired from teaching at Framingham State University, Nick and his wife, Pat, divide their time between Boston, Cape Cod, and the rest of the Western world.

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