a group of people looking at a chart with sticky notes around it to illustrate the research needed for a hybrid memoir.

Hybrid Memoir Research: 3 Strategies

I’ve been thinking a lot about research and how to write a hybrid memoir over the past few weeks. 

Some of this was inspired by my recent interview with Sarah Perry, where we talked about the research she did to bring her mother to life, and my final preparations for Find the Memoir Structure that Works for You, which I’m teaching tomorrow, Wednesday (2/21). The rest is due to the book project I outlined while attending the AWP Conference. 

Many of the memoirs currently being published exist at the nexus between story and research. These books live on a spectrum from those deeply grounded in research to ones that overtly teach you something new.

Tia Levings’ memoir, A Well-Trained Wife (August 2024), is a harrowing journey of indoctrination and escape that reads like a novel. While Tia’s life story is powerful on its own, its broad appeal stems from the conversation it has with our political climate. The research is embedded in the story, so there’s never a break in the narrative through line. 

Sarah Perry’s, After the Eclipse, sits just to the right of Tia’s memoir. It begins with her return to the police station that houses the evidence from her mother’s murder case, so she can research what happened. The alternating before and after structure coupled with the chapters about her mother’s early life remind us that this is a highly researched book. 

Then there are books where the research shows up on the page. I just finished the voice-driven Wine Witch on Fire, by Natalie Maclean, which is about a horrific online pile-on that upended her life and career. In this book, Natalie doesn’t just lead me through what happened, she teaches me about wine, witches, and the misogyny of wine culture. 

Katie Rose Guest Pryal’s essay collection Even If You’re Broken: Bodies, Boundaries, and Mental Health embeds concepts into her essays, like the Thin Skull Rule, that serve as vehicles for helping us understand her story and ourselves. 

At the AWP Conference, I attended a session on Hybrid Memoirs that combine life stories and research

Here are the takeaways that are applicable to all genres. 

Every writer on the panel admitted that adding research is a slow process, but it’s one that can enrich your story. Sonya Huber calls research the “lyric connective tissue for her work.” It helps you create a wider picture of what’s happening and how your story intersects with the larger world. 

Here are three ways you can incorporate research into your work. 

Hybrid Memoir Research Strategy 1: Examine Your Artifacts From Every Angle

Jerome Hill Artist and American Association of University Women Fellow, Catina Bacote, is a fan of examining artifacts from all angles and offered a series of questions you can use to probe a piece of research: 

  • What is the story this document is telling?
  • What’s there beyond the information on the page?
  • How can it help me understand something new?
  • What is the larger historical context?
  • What isn’t on the document that’s missing?

Hybrid Memoir Research Strategy 2: Consider Interviews: 

Daisy Hernández, author of A Cup of Water Under My Bed, wrote about Chagas, a very neglected disease transmitted by the kissing bug that decimates the heart muscle and disproportionately affects poor Latinx communities. While she had a personal connection to this disease, she’s not a scientist. As she interviewed other people, here’s what she discovered: 

  • Specialists in a field rarely get interviewed. Most will be delighted to speak with you.
  • Even if you think you know something, let people explain it to you. You might learn something new.
  • Writing like this is a work of translation. You’re doing the research, so the reader doesn’t have to.
  • What stitches everything together is your voice.

Hybrid Memoir Research Strategy 3: Embrace the Mess

Jennifer Lunden, author of American Breakdown, explores the similarities between her illness, ME/CFS, and a disease contracted by Alice James, the bedridden sibling of author Henry James. She had to figure out how to present the research in short digestible pieces appropriate for a wider audience. 

Here’s her advice: 

  • Be curious.
  • Tolerate chaos: bodies, books, and life are messy. Get used to it.
  • Instead of trying to control the narrative, work to create connections, intuit where to go, and follow your research’s secret river to see where it leads you.
  • It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and to wonder if your book is crap.

These writers prove that the results can be far greater than your original idea, if you’re willing to stay the course.

That leads to my book projects. 

In 2019, I had an idea for a book on writing about trauma that resulted in a barebones workbook I’ve given away during conferences and a few classes. At one point, I planned to self-publish it, but an internal voice said, “Not yet.” 

So, I shelved it to work on my memoir. 

Last year, I realized the book needed a research angle, but I didn’t know how to thread it together. While listening to this AWP session, I realized I needed to weave the research, my concepts, and personal my story together to bring everything to life.

Later that day, I created a skeletal outline. It still needs some work, but it feels solid and executable. 

So, what role do you want research to play in your book? 

Love what you just read?

Get my weekly posts delivered to your inbox. As a special bonus, I’l send you my FREE ebook, Write More, Fret Less: Five Brain Hacks that Will Supercharge Your Productivity, Creativity, and Confidence.

Need a little nudge? See what my followers have to say.

I get something from every single newsletter I receive.

I have a short list of newsletters I regularly read. Lisa’s is one of them. I read every single one.

Your newsletters offer excellent reminders to check in with myself and understand my needs as a writer.

Pin It on Pinterest