Writing Memoir: Know Your Audience

Michele Sharpe
3 min readMay 31, 2018
“Two people reading books on an old train seen through its windows” by Rathish Gandhi on Unsplash

Who are you writing for? It makes all the difference.

Memoir writers, like any group, are diverse. Some write for their children or grandchildren or more remote descendants. Some write to give people like themselves hope or inspiration. Some write to preserve history. Some write to achieve a personal catharsis and share it with others.

Ironically, although I’ve taught audience awareness to thousands of college students using exercises about how to profile an audience, until now I haven’t written a profile of my current memoir project.

Writing a profile of an audience requires some imagination about demographics. Imagine where they live, how old they are, their race, gender, and class. Get granular by imagining their clothing style, their haircuts, their pets, their kitchens, their cars. The more details, as always, the better.

I’m an adoptee, and my current project is about reuniting with my birth family. And although the book would probably be of interest to other adoptees, I’m not specifically targeting adoptees as an audience.

In some ways, my project is a family history. And although my family sometimes reads my published essays and is incredibly supportive of my writing about them, they aren’t my audience.

My audience is people who have contempt or disregard or distaste for the underclass, which is how demographers would define most of my family. I’m talking poverty, drug addiction, juvenile delinquency, long prison sentences, early teen pregnancies, bad teeth, and dying young.

I want my audience to get to know my family, to understand them, and to love them as unique individuals who are worthy of love.

Being able to profile or define audience impacts the choices we make as writers. As a teacher, I’d use examples like this one from the UNC Writing Center to explain how audience influences those choices:

To illustrate the impact of audience, imagine you’re writing a letter to your grandmother to tell her about your first month of college. What details and stories might you include? What might you leave out? Now imagine that you’re writing on the same topic but your audience is your best friend. Unless you have an extremely cool grandma to whom you’re very close, it’s likely that your two letters would look quite different in terms of content, structure, and even tone.

While this example seems a bit cheesy, it’s on point. We must adjust our writing for different groups of people, just as we adjust our diction when speaking to different groups of people.

I know first-hand the pain and stigma my family has struggled against. Living in the upper classes, as an attorney and a college president’s wife, I know first-hand how and why other people might have contempt or disregard or distaste for me and my people, and others like us. I know this audience could be hard to convince. That means I must be scrupulously honest about the good and the bad, and I must make my own love shine through.

I believe in the power of story. James Baldwin, a writer I so admire, said it best in his short story “Sonny’s Blues”:

For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness,

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Michele Sharpe

Words in NYT, WaPo, Oprah Mag, Poets&Writers, et als. Adoptee/high school dropout/hep C survivor/former trial attorney. @MicheleJSharpe & MicheleSharpe.com