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ASK THE EDITOR So, You Want to Write Your Memoirs?

By Susan Malone

February, 2002

I have received in the past two years a large number of queries and manuscripts from writers penning memoirs. And while I don't usually focus on one genre in these columns, the pervasiveness of this one begs discussion. Because one's life story, no matter how tangled with twists and turns, how fraught with trials and tribulations, does not necessarily make for a compelling memoir. The genre itself is about something different.

Now, a disclaimer here: If you're already a celebrity of some sort, then your autobiography (and I term it that rather than memoir, as most hot celebrities these days aren't old enough to write memoirs) will sell a lot of copies. So, this column doesn't pertain to you.

But if you're someone who's seen a bit of life and want to tell your life story, or have a relative who does, then you need to understand clearly what a memoir is all about.

So, first let's talk some about what it's not. A memoir is not a diary. It is not a journaling of this happened and then this and finally this. It is not a calendar of the events of your life, and a listing of the friends/relatives in it. Even if you believe that the sageness of your years brought wisdom to impart, you still don't have a viable book.

A memoir, to be commercial, is not a family history, or a scrapbook of familial lineage. The commercial market doesn't care if Uncle Joseph married Aunt Irene and had fourteen kids, five of whom died in childbirth with one succumbing to scarlet fever in his teens. Now, YOUR family might care. And if that's your final market–i.e., you're self-publishing the genealogy for your family, period–then that's fine. But if you want to sell this to the public, unless Joseph's family had some real impact on the point of the memoir (or one of the surviving siblings became a serial killer), then they pretty much need to be left out.

And there's the crux: a memoir, as with any full-length book published by a traditional house, has to have a point. A raison d'être. Although I stop short of the Fran Lebowitz take: "Your life story will not make a good book. Trust me," some truth does exist there. We all have stories to tell. If you want the general public to read yours, it better be brilliant.

Just that you survived being molested as a child is not enough. Just that you fled oppression from a third-world country to settle in freedom is not enough. Just that your ship turned over in the choppy Atlantic and everyone died but you, really isn't enough. Of course, if you ate the other folks . . . Now, we'd be getting somewhere. Or if you survived being molested and lobbied successfully to enhance victim's rights laws. Or, if you fled that third-world company and became founder of Save the X Country's Children organization.

Sounds suspiciously as though I'm back to the disclaimer, right?

Well, yes and no.

One of the most successful memoirs (and indeed books) of the last twenty-five years is ANGELA'S ASHES.  And you know, McCourt didn't really have a terribly unique tale. But here's what he did do:

       1). He honed in on his story.  In other words, he found a theme and stuck to it.

       2). The writing itself was spectacular.

       3). His characters were as compelling as well-drawn fictional ones.

The big three–those elements that make up a good book, whether we're talking Mystery, Fantasy, 'Woman's' fiction, a memoir, well, you get the picture. I think folks have an idea that to write their life stories, they just need to tell what happens. Such could not be further from the case. Again, you have to HAVE a story to tell. One that has meaning. One that ties into a larger theme. I edited a wonderful family memoir that was published last fall called IN THE BOAT WITH LBJ. John Bullion had a story to tell. But rest assured–this WAS a family memoir. He just tied it into the much larger story of Lyndon Johnson's rise to and fall from power. And the writing is spectacular. And the characters jump off the pages. And the book is doing quite well.

So, if you want to write your memoirs, and believe they will enrich mankind, by all means–do so. Just give it a theme. Focus sharply upon that. Hone your writing skills so the prose sings. And learn to create vivid characters.

Sounds suspiciously like all good writing of which I know.



Susan M. Malone is a Contributing Editor to Authorlink.com, a multi-published author, and owner of a successful editorial service. Ten books she’s edited have been published or sold within the last three years. Check out her listing under Editorial Services, and email her at aaasuz@aol.com