Are You Writing a Memoir?

By Maeve Maddox

memoir: Autobiographical observations; reminiscences.

Anyone can write a memoir.

From what I can tell, just about everyone is writing a memoir.

ANGELINA Jolie is writing her memoirs.

Denise Richards to Pen a Memoir

The creative director of Vogue, Grace Coddington, is working on her memoirs

Charlie’s Angels star Kate Jackson is writing her memoirs

Justin Bieber is compiling all the living he’s done in his 16 years for a new ‘photographic memoir,’

Susan Lucci–Erica Kane of All My Children–is writing a memoir.

Salman Rushdie signs a deal for writing his memoirs

Palin signs deal for memoir to be published in 2010.

[Rob Lowe] is writing a memoir entitled “Stories I Only Tell My Friends,”

Ashley Judd To Write Her Memoirs.

Steven Tyler [Aerosmith] Is Writing His Memoirs

In her third memoir, Mary Karr gets sober and finds faith—with attitude.

Usage seems to prefer the singular memoir for a personal account of a limited period of time in one’s life, and plural memoirs for a recounting of one’s entire life up to the moment of writing.

Jaycee Dugard Writing Memoir About Her 18 Years in Captivity,

Sonia Sotomayor to write memoirs on life and law

NOTE: Some would say that a “memoir” that begins with the author’s birth and childhood and proceeds to the time of writing is an autobiography, while the account of a certain period of one’s life is a memoir. My own distinction between memoir and autobiography agrees with that of Gore Vidal:

a memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.”

If you are writing a memoir, here are some questions for you.

1. Are you writing it because it’s good therapy for you and will be helpful to others?

2. Has the word count reached 100,000 and you’re only halfway through?

3. Are you including every single thing that you can remember about your life up until this present moment?

4. Do you expect a publisher to buy your memoir when you are finished with it?

If your answer to number 4 is “No,” then I say, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!”

If your answer to number 4 and at least one of the other questions is “Yes,” then you may need to rethink your idea of what a publishable memoir is.

A publishable memoir is a selective, crafted rendering of personal recollections. It is not a recitation of everything that ever happened to its subject. The ever popular celebrity memoir is usually the work of a professional ghostwriter who knows how to select and order events into a coherent work of structured prose.

Writing one’s memoirs may indeed provide the writer a therapeutic way of dealing with unpleasant memories by getting them down on paper. This aspect of memoir writing, however, is of no interest to an agent or publisher:

One of the biggest mistakes I see in query letters for the memoir is writers who spotlight how cathartic and therapeutic the writing of the work was and how they now need to share it with the world. –“Agent Kristin”

Kristin goes on to say that readers aren’t interested in any one person’s therapeutic story. They want an “inside look to a world they’ve never seen…a world that is unbelievable but true…a story that captures a universal feeling…”

Millions of people have experienced abusive childhoods, addiction, premature death of loved ones… What makes the account of one person’s experience of these things readable is the way in which it is written.

Although based on actual events, memoir is more like fiction than nonfiction. To be publishable, a memoir must make use of fiction techniques that pull the reader along and elicit an emotional response.

If you are not a celebrity, you need to be able to write extremely well in order to place a memoir with a publisher.

Here are some memoirs that have achieved lasting publishing success.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
Home Before Dark by Susan Cheever
Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

Here’s an excellent article on memoir writing by William Zinsser: How to Write a Memoir.

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6 Responses to “Are You Writing a Memoir?”

  • Stan

    Zinsser also wrote about this in his exceptional On Writing Well; he described memoir as “the art of inventing the truth” and said that to write a good one “you must become the editor of your own life”.

  • Rebecca

    I thought about writing a memoir when I get older. I journal so I have a lot of material to use.

  • Steve

    Some of the country’s best memoirists, writers of creative nonfiction, assembled for a three-day conference last week at the University of Iowa’s NonfictionNOW 2010. After hearing them read from essays and excerpts from their books, it is no secret why their memoirs are worth buying—they write very well. However, they in academia, will tell you that financial prosperity doesn’t come from the sale of memoirs but the accumulation of them found in their curricula vitae.

    We writers outside of university settings must find other sources for cash or notoriety. If we must write memoirs, they should be written with the best of our skills and resources, then aggressively marketed.

    Except for our moms, people don’t want to part with $25 to read how we finally stopped whining.

  • Tom

    I used to think a memoir was like a diary with all the good stuff redacted.

  • Brent

    I laughed out loud at that line: If your answer to number 4 is “No,” then I say, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!”

    Now that’s some good writing (and some good advice, too). Thanks!

  • Maeve

    @Brent
    Mustn’t forget David Farragut at the Battle of Mobile Bay!

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