Jewish Book Council was honored to present Shulem Deen, the author of the 2015 National Jewish Book Awards winner of the Myra H. Kraft Memorial Award for Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice All Who Go Do Not Return, as the keynote speaker at the annual Jewish Writers’ Seminar last month. “Lots of people mistake memoir writing for therapy; I mistook therapy for storytelling,” he began his unforgettable address on recognizing the form of his writing as a craft, rather than an indulgence. For those who missed the speech in its entirely, Jewish Book Council is proud to publish its conclusion, a countdown of the most important rules for memoir writing, according to Shulem Deen:
10. You don’t need to have had an “interesting life”; only the ability to see life in interesting ways.
9. Memoir isn’t autobiography; its unifying principle should be thematic, not just “My Life.”
8. Just because it happened doesn’t mean it’s interesting. Be selective with both scenes and details.
7. Don’t come dressed in a three-piece suit. If your memoir doesn’t embarrass you at least a little, you’re not doing it right.
6. If you’ve been wronged: press charges, file a lawsuit, or hire a hitman. Never, ever, ever use memoir to get back at someone.
5. Write from your scars, not from your wounds. If you need to, do your therapy first.
4. Find your three-act narrative arc early on, and you’ll avoid having to trash hundreds of pages.
3. Sections and chapters must have a cumulative effect. If it doesn’t propel the narrative — by helping to build tension, or resolving it — it doesn’t belong. Cut it.
2. Be truthful. This should be obvious.
Shulem Deen is a former Skverer Hasid and the founding editor of Unpious. His work has appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward, Tablet, and Salon. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.