Occasionally projects come along that take other approaches, though. One example is what I call an “instructional memoir,” a personal narrative in which the subject combines a retelling of her life – or some segment of her life – with information about how to do something, offering useful instructions that the reader might be able to apply directly to his or her own life.
Last spring I started working on a book with Rachel Geller, a certified cat behaviorist and pet chaplain. Rachel was brimming with expert knowledge about cat behavior, true. So what made this more than just a “How to care for your pet” manual?
That’s where the memoir part came in. Rachel started the narrative describing how she became such an animal lover. She evoked the Maine forests and fields she walked through on her way home from school, and how stray cats who followed her home were welcome to stay – “No microchips for tracing them back to an owner in those days,” Rachel pointed out.
She also illustrated the origins of her skill at reaching out to those in need. The daughter of a popular rabbi, she frequently accompanied her father on pastoral visits. She worked in a speech pathology practice as a teenager, becoming fast attuned to the unique needs and frustrations of the patients and developing an aptitude for reaching out to them in just the way they most needed. As a young professional, she assumed guardianship of an aunt with dementia and took on the Massachusetts State House in order to get a bill passed into law regarding certain aspects of elderly care.
Rachel’s book about cats combines both instruction and memoir as she offers readers her insights on cat behavior while also using anecdotes from her life to win the reader’s trust and engagement. Working with Rachel gave me the chance to do two of the things I enjoy most as a writer: informing readers by providing tangible, useful details, but also bringing the narrator’s voice to life by drawing out her experiences and background to show her as a complete person and not just an objective commentator.
Can you imagine sharing your particular area of expertise through an instructional memoir? Did you invent something, start a business or develop a nonprofit? Have you traveled through a remarkable part of the world? Are you a skilled cook or teacher or technician – with a personal story underlying your expertise? If so, maybe an instructional memoir is the right format for your story. Please be in touch any time to talk about getting the process of your memoir started!