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Here’s another story from another class. A young Jewish woman named Helen Blatt was very eager to write about her father’s experience as a survivor of the Holocaust. He had escaped from his village in Poland at the age of 14—one of the few Jews to get away—and had made his way to Italy, to New Orleans and, finally, to New York. Now he was 80, and his daughter asked him to go back with her to that Polish village so she could hear about his early life and write his story. But he begged off; he was too frail and the past was too painful.

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That turned out to be the main lesson I learned by writing a book in 2004 called Writing About Your Life. It’s a memoir of my own life, but it’s also a teaching book—along the way I explain the reducing and organizing decisions I made. I never felt that my memoir had to include all the important things that ever happened to me—a common temptation when old people sit down to summarize their life journey. On the contrary, many of the chapters in my book are about small episodes that were not objectively “important” but that were important to me. Because they were important to me they also struck an emotional chord with readers, touching a universal truth that was important to them.

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My final reducing advice can be summed up in two words: think small. Don’t rummage around in your past—or your family’s past—to find episodes that you think are “important” enough to be worthy of including in your memoir. Look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it’s because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.

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One chapter is about serving in the army in World War II. Like most men of my generation, I recall that war as the pivotal experience of my life. But in my memoir I don’t write anything about the war itself. I just tell one story about one trip I took across North Africa after our troopship landed at Casablanca. My fellow GIs and I were put on a train consisting of decrepit wooden boxcars called “forty-and-eights,” so named because they were first used by the French in World War I to transport forty men or eight horses. The words QUARANTE HOMMES OU HUIT CHEVAUX were still stenciled on them. For six days I sat in the open door of that boxcar with my feet hanging out over Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. It was the most uncomfortable ride I ever took—and the best. I couldn’t believe I was in North Africa. I was the sheltered son of Northeastern WASPs; nobody in my upbringing or my education had ever mentioned the Arabs. Now, suddenly, I was in a landscape where everything was new—every sight and sound and smell.

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As for how to actually organize your memoir, my final advice is, again, think small. Tackle your life in easily manageable chunks. Don’t visualize the finished product, the grand edifice you have vowed to construct. That will only make you anxious.

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What happened? To answer that, it helps to consider what gave rise to the personal essay’s ubiquity in the first place. Around 2008, several factors converged. In preceding years, private blogs and social platforms—LiveJournal, Blogspot, Facebook—trained people to write about their personal lives at length and in public. As Silvia Killingsworth, who was previously the managing editor of The New Yorker and took over the Awl and the Hairpin last year, put it to me, “People love to talk about themselves, and they were given a platform and no rules.” Then the invisible hand of the page-view economy gave them a push: Web sites generated ad revenue in direct proportion to how many “eyeballs” could be attracted to their offerings, and editorial budgets had contracted in the wake of the recession. The forms that became increasingly common—flashy personal essays, op-eds, and news aggregation—were those that could attract viral audiences on the cheap.