Food memoirs are shaping up as “quests” these days, quite tidy and well organized. If you can master the form, there’s room for your story.
But first, as always, you’ll have competition from chefs, who are still writing traditional memoir. Typically, these books bore me (except for Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential). But then I read Blood, Bones & Butter, an adrenaline-fueled memoir of Gabriel Hamilton’s relentless ambition to make good food and find love. It won the Beard award for Best Writing & Literature earlier this year.
Like Bourdain, Hamilton has the writing chops to craft an exceptional story. Lest you think these two were both just chefs when penning their memoirs, The New Yorker published Bourdain’s first story, and he had already written a novel. Hamilton had an MFA in Fiction and had already written for several prestigious national magazines.
If you’re not a restaurant chef or famous food person, you’ll have your chance if you embark on an adventure, as these writers did:
- American Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan returned to Singapore to learn her family’s dishes in A Tiger in the Kitchen.
- Kathleen Flinn started a cooking school in Kitchen Counter Cooking School.
- Eugenia Bone travelled around the US to learn about mushrooms in Mycophelia.
- Jonathan Dixon survived cooking school in Beaten, Seared, and Sauced
- Robin Mather lost her job and her marriage, and retreated to a cabin in the woods to live frugally The Feast Nearby.
Most of these authors are journalists and successful freelancers, but you don’t have to be. Memoir is about your ability to tell a story well. As these examples show, it’s not about your whole life. That’s an autobiography, much harder to get published unless you’re famous. Autobiographies tend to be big messy stories that need lots of focusing and shaping, because they cover decades. (Although if you want to read a beautiful autobiography that made me cry, try Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen.)
Quest-based memoirs like those I listed above, however, take only a year or so. The trick is to come up with an intriguing adventure and tell a concise tale with a plot. Memoirs are considered narrative non-fiction, so these books have tension and a story arc that propels readers forward. It would also help if you were transformed by the journey, write with introspection, research your subject well, and oh yes — you write with humor and self deprecation.
Too long of a list? I don’t think so. The problem is the “quest” part. If you’re still doing what you always do, at home in your kitchen or in front of your computer, a memoir is probably not what’s next for you. To go for it, come up with an idea that challenges you and takes you in a different direction.
You might also like:
- Memoir tips from Writer’s Digest — A compilation of posts about aspects of memoir writing
- How to Write a Memoir — About writing a family history, by William Zinsser. And if you don’t own his book On Writing Well, get it right now, please.
- How to Write Your Memoir — An essay in O magazine by a beautiful literary writer.
Now, a writing exercise: The ability to boil a book idea down to one sentence can’t be underestimated because it forces you to be concise and specific. If you have a memoir idea, try writing the concept in one sentence, in the comments here. Or maybe you read a great memoir lately. If so, please recommend it, also in one sentence. Let’s see what you’ve got.
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