Mitch Albom: The Keys to a Memoir (Plus Prompt)

Whenever my nonfiction gets personal and I write a column or essay featuring myself as a character, I tend to really cut loose—and often end up with 3,000 words for a 750-word piece. I’m powerless: As soon as “I” comes into play, my internal journalist and editor takes a coffee break and returns, aghast, to find an unruly piece loaded with, well, way too much information. He then takes out his literary chainsaw and (painfully, word by word) slices the whole thing down to something manageable while I look on, shuddering.

Which is why, to cut down on the pain later and focus my writing, I try to remind myself of the first sentence of the following advice before I start (especially, Lord forbid, I ever stretch such a piece into memoir length). Here’s the latest in our Top 20 Tips from WD in 2009 series.

No. 7: The Keys To a Memoir

Anyone who tries to write a memoir needs to keep in mind that what’s interesting to you isn’t necessarily interesting to a reader. Are you writing a book because you just think it’s fascinating, or because you just want to tell your story? I don’t think those are good reasons. A memoir should have some uplifting quality, inspiring or illuminating, and that’s what separates a life story that can influence other people.
Mitch Albom, as interviewed in our October 2009 issue (check it out here).

Also, sorry for the radio silence Wednesday—we’re in the process of plowing through the endgame for the February 2010 issue of WD magazine right now. Be sure to check back next week—I’ve got a Q&A about literary journals lined up with one of my favorite authors to work with (for those of us in the Literary Journal Challenge).


“You did what?!”

Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

You take the manuscript, cross out his name, and write your own.
“I’ve earned it,” you say.

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4 thoughts on “Mitch Albom: The Keys to a Memoir (Plus Prompt)

  1. Baron

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  2. Martha W

    No, Mark. LAST one to post buys lunch. I swear, didn’t we talk about this? *rolling eyes* lol!!

    Seriously, awesome story. Funny how we both went with someone dying! Speaks to our morbid sense of humor, I think.

    Do you have to enter the stupid code that "prevents robots" more than once? Ergh!

  3. Mark James

    Zac – I’m with Martha. This one was a lot of fun to work with.
    Martha – First one to post buys lunch, right?

    I took the manuscript, crossed out his name, wrote in my own.

    Henley’s mouth fell open. “It took me two years to write that.”

    “So what? You’re the one hired me.”

    “I hired you to – – ”

    “To do a job.” I smoothed my long fingers over the stack of pages. “I earned this.”

    He shot out of the chair faster than I would have given him credit for. Then he was launching himself at me, hands out. “You filthy gutter rat. You have no right to do this to me.”

    I didn’t move. We were face to face, inches apart, him lying half way over my desk. “But what you did was right?” I kept my voice low, near a whisper. “When’s Missy finding out what you did to her mom?”

    “Worthless, cheating whore. She had no right to – -”

    I went over to the window, looked at the night skyline. “Looks like nobody’s got rights except you, professor.”

    He slid off the desk like the snake he was. “Stop calling me that.”

    “The right to kill, the right to live, the right to decide who’s so dirty, they gotta die to set the world back to how it should be.”

    “Give me my book.”

    I shook my head. “No. I don’t think so.”

    He must have heard something in my voice. “Justin, you promised our mother.”

    I scrubbed my face, tried to wash off the family resemblance. “Things change.”

    “Like what?”

    I heard the fear in his voice, but I’d let this go on too long. “You didn’t start drinking ‘til after mom died. Then you met Kathleen – -”

    “Worthless cheating – -”

    “Then Missy came along. Then you killed Kathleen.”

    He raised his hands like a man calling down demons. “What did you want me to do? Let her be a mother to my child?”

    “Most men – they get divorced.”

    “She would have soaked me for every penny.”

    “And then,” I went on, ignoring him, “you begged me to take on a job. Remember? Sitting in that same chair, begging me to help you stop drinking, so you could write a book and now – -”

    “And now you’re stealing what’s mine,” he said.

    “No, I set up a trust fund. It’s all going to Missy.”

    He gave me a puzzled look. “A trust fund won’t benefit her. Not unless I’m dead.”

    I shrugged. “I didn’t say it was a perfect plan. And you forgot something.”

    He backed up as I went toward him. “What?”

    “I promised mom I wouldn’t live and see you hurt.”

    My brother swallowed. “You can have it. I can write another one.”

    I heard the timer click over. “I know. That’s why I’m doing it like this.”

    He looked up at the vents, where white smoke was curling out in thick tendrils. “What have you done?”

    I waved at the manuscript. “That’s just for show. I had it lifted from your computer yesterday. It’s on its way to an agent. She’s getting paid a whole lot of money to make sure it’s published under my name.”

    He tried the locked door, banged on it. “You’re insane. Open it.”

    His deep panicked breaths sent him on seconds before me. He crumpled against the door.

    I breathed deep. “When you see mom, you’re gonna have to tell her what you did.”

    After that, the dark came.

    I walked into it.

  4. Martha W

    Ha! Beat ya, Mark!! *grin*

    Zac, I had a really good time with this one. It might be my favorite so far…


    Standing in the sterile office of the man you’ve grown to hate, you only half listen to his voice drone on about what a success his book was going to be. The walls are stark white and the floors bare. All the furniture the same boring blend of oak. How can anyone function without color?

    "TJ!" The sharp rapport echoed in the room, jerking you out of your inner meandering.

    Your eyes snap up to meet his. "Yes?"

    "Why is it you never listen?" The snotty disdain dripped off every word. The cold blue of his eyes never, ever thawed. What a bitter old man.

    Keeping your mouth shut would be the best course of action. You sigh. You’ve never been good at doing what’s best. If you had, you’d have left a long time ago before his acerbic comments could deteriorate the thin wall of self-esteem you had mantled around your heart. "I do listen. You just don’t stop talking long enough to notice."

    His eyes widened and the mottled red creeping up his neck warned you the next words were not going to be pretty. "I don’t-" He stopped, inhaling a deep breath before continuing, "Well, then, listen to this." His hands began to shake with suppressed rage. Oh boy. Here we go, you think.

    "You are useless. No one knew who you were ten minutes ago and no one will know who are are 10 minutes or 10 years from now!" Your eyes narrow, where exactly was he going with this?

    He rose up out of his chair, leaning on gnarled hands to get closer to your face, spit flinging out of his mouth as he spewed his venom. "All that research? It is now mine. I told you before I could take it away, and now I will!" His breathing was ragged, the red in his neck and face almost purple now.

    No! You close your eyes, not wanting to believe him. A heavy thump followed by an even heavier one startles you. Then silence. With no idea how long you stood that way, eyes closed, eventually curiosity won out. He was gone. Your gaze zips around the room trying to locate him. It was never good to lose sight of your enemy.

    Finally you notice a pair of $500 dress shoes sticking out from the side of the desk, his chair is askew. Slowly you creep around the edge, not trusting him. He has always been a sneaky bastard. But as you reach the corner nearest him, you realize he isn’t breathing. Or moving. Or alive.

    Oh boy. You should call 911.

    As you reach for the phone on the desk, the reason for the first heavy thump catches your attention. His manuscript. No. Your manuscript. Your research. Yours.

    Carefully, you kneel down next to the bitter old man. "Well, Dad. Thanks for the memories."

    You take the manuscript, cross out his name, and write your own. “I’ve earned it,” you say.