Different stories are meant to appeal to different readers—that’s why you keep heading (pre-pandemic, anyway) for certain sections of your local bookstore or library and not others. But has it occurred to you that some life writing might be meant for an audience of one? Spoiler alert: We’re referring to you!
“Who is your audience?” is the first (big) question we ask any prospective client. Some people immediately know the answer: Maybe their memoir will be a legacy left for grandchildren who know only bits and pieces of their life story. Maybe their family history will be a precious resource for a specialized archive. Or maybe they want to record the history of an institution that will educate prospective clients or donors.
But sometimes people don’t know the answer or haven't yet considered who their future readers might be. These are the storytellers we encourage to pause before even thinking about book design and printing options.
Why? Because all storytelling is a series of choices, and the most essential choice is what to include and what to omit. Your memoir can’t include every single detail of your life (and if you tried, the result would be unreadable). So you decide that some information is important, and other bits are less so. You pick and choose until your story takes shape.
It sounds simple, but (take our word for it) it can get complicated and even discouraging. The sheer number of choices can bog you down. But keeping your audience’s expectations in mind can help. Those curious grandchildren will always want to make a personal, emotional connection with you, for example, whereas a scholar might be eager to see the historical big picture through the lens of your (or your family’s) experiences.
But don’t forget that you can write for another kind of audience: you. When you are your own audience, you’re not transmitting information, and you’re not trying to build an emotional connection with someone else. You’re writing to honor your experiences, to preserve your memories. You’re writing to think about and make sense of your life.
We at RLM are all about sharing life stories, but we recognize that honest self-reflection is an essential human need, especially as we age. If you think about an external audience—and if you write with their needs and expectations in mind—you might be robbing yourself of an opportunity to fulfill that need.
When you write for yourself, you won’t have to wonder if someone will be angry with you for thinking something unkind or for holding an unpopular opinion. You won’t have to hold back the details of an embarrassing event or financial catastrophe. Private writing—with no sugarcoating—can be incredibly freeing and can allow you to access memories that might otherwise go unplumbed.
The result can be the most important writing you’ll ever do—not because it will be published or win a prize, but because you may make some profound discoveries about yourself and your life. Whether or not you decide to share those discoveries with a larger audience is up to you.