Have you ever wanted to share your life story in a memoir? To get some tips, we caught up with Jon Reiner–the author who teaches Mediabistro’s upcoming Memoir Writing course.
Reiner discussed the back story behind his award-winning memoir, The Man Who Couldn’t Eat, along with advice for writing a great memoir. Check out the highlights from our interview below…
Q: What advice do you have for others who want to write their own memoir?
A: Figure out the story first and test it with a trusted, critical reader or editor. Is the story compelling enough to keep a reader interested? That’s the first test and you can’t fudge it. If you believe the story can work, begin to write in a scene structure to avoid falling into the confessional diary pattern. If you find that it’s moving and scenes are begetting scenes, keep going.

Q: How did you first establish your professional writing career?
A: After years of writing fiction, drama and screenplays and not getting published or produced, my guts exploded and I was asked by Esquire to write about the ‘Nothing-By-Mouth’ aftermath. It was a fluke, and I pounced on the opportunity. The story won a James Beard Foundation Award, was nominated for a National Magazine Award and led to a book contract for my memoir with Simon & Schuster. I became a 20-year overnight sensation.
Q: Is there a marked difference to how you approach writing essays and magazine articles versus a book?
A: Yes and no. Both require me to think of a story and get interested in it, get myself in the mindset of the narrative to start researching and playing with the pieces. The difference may be in how quickly I jump into the actual writing, with a magazine piece starting faster than a book.
Q: Describe your research process for writing your memoir.
A: I’d already written 15,000 words for Esquire and another several thousand for the book proposal, so I started with what I had and grew it from there, settling on the narrative timeframe and three-part structure as I wrote. Since I was telling personal history, I conducted a few interviews to check my memory, but all of the detail — menu items from 1968, for example, medical principles — I was able to research on the web.

Q: Share your thoughts on what characteristics define a great memoir.
A: The same qualities that define a great novel — voice, story, character, dialogue, setting, narrative arc. Great writing is great storytelling; the genre doesn’t matter. Frank McCourt was a great storyteller and so is William Trevor.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m writing a novel that I’ve been thinking about and researching for 15 years.