How Long Should a Memoir Be?
Updated: Jun 24, 2019
One of the most challenging aspects of writing a book in any genre is landing on the proper length. Too long and it’s an epic and may be better suited as a trilogy or series. Too short, it’s a novella and may not be a stand-alone work. I focus this post on memoir length.
Depending on who is trying to give you advice they never take themselves, a new memoirist is likely to hear that 80,000 words is the maximum length for a memoir from an unknown author.
(If you are already well known, then what you’re writing is likely an autobiography.) I’ve also read that 100,000 words is practically taboo.
So what length memoir did I write? 116,000 words. 116,245 to be specific. Taboos be damned.
In my memoir, Don’t Mind Me, I’m Just Having a Bad Life, I cover a lot of ground over the course of four decades. Typically, this type of exposition is reserved for well-known folks who write autobiographies covering every thing that happened in their lives. Unless the story you’re telling spans decades as mine does. I trace back to my earliest feelings of depression, self-hatred, and incidents of self-harm from my earliest memories and work my way forward at a rapid pace.
My friend and fellow memoirist, Martin Moran, told me early in my writing process that for him. “What makes a memoir lift off the page and have a reason for being out in the world, is that somewhere at the deepest center of the story, the telling of the 'what happened' is an inquiry. A broad deep inquiry that is trying to examine the human question of ‘becoming’ or of what lays beneath it all ... for all of us on this human journey.”
For the first four years of the five years it took to write and rewrite Don’t Mind Me..., I couldn’t even answer the question, “What’s the book about?” much less boil down the book’s thesis to a one-paragraph elevator speech.
Then finally I got it: The book is about how much I’ve misunderstood myself, avoided God, and ended up a sex and meth addict.
Once I had those threads to weave through my chapters, it became easier to choose what could stay and what should be cut.
I struggled mightily with getting the length down and did manage to cut 12,000 words. But as I tried to remove more pieces of the narrative, things began to fall apart, holes began to appear, meanings started to get muddled, cliches began to... well, never mind. As one of my editors told me of my final draft, “every scene you have included is essential to your story.” So, in my humble opinion, story dictates length.
When I worked a number of years for Disney Creative Entertainment (a one-time cousin to Walt Disney Imagineering), the driving mantra, the raison d’etre for everything we created, was story. Applied to my book, if the story was compelling and could capture and hold a reader’s attention, well, that would be a great thing.
Story is everything.
I hope you like my story the way I've told it.