The Big Catch-22 for Memoir Writers

“You have to choose: Live life, or tell about it.” (Sartre)

I’ve long struggled with two conflicting values in life & writing:

  • To be interesting or compelling, you have to be focused outward. (Boring people are such because they can hold no interest in others.)
  • To get any good at writing (a solitary pursuit), it’s usually at the expense of living.

Sartre was an existentialist, but it seems there was something of the Zen master in his comment that you can either live life, or tell about it.

If we “live life,” that’s action-oriented—living in the moment, and being fully engaged in what’s happening around us.

If we “tell about it,” we have to spend time questioning, analyzing, and struggling with abstract concepts, with meaning and story (and studying diverse perspectives), which is averse to (I think) a really living-kind-of-living.

To lead a full life often means we must do so at the expense of practicing our writing (putting in those mythical 10,000 hours). Many of us might need a second lifetime to get
good enough to produce a commercially publishable story.

The July/August 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest is concerned with this last point—what does it mean to write about your life in a way (or CONCEIVE of your life in a way) that makes it marketable to a publisher or agent?

Agent Mollie Glick comments, “I’m a big fan of memoirs by people who have lived lives the rest of us only dream of.”

Therefore, unless you write as well as Faulkner, it can be difficult to devise a premise for your life story that will interest the commercial market. Nevertheless, this issue pulls out all the stops in pointing the way.

Articles included in the July/August 2010 issue:

  • “A Hook for Every Book” by Paula Balzer. Discusses six key hooks that most memoirs fall into.
  • “Elements of an Effective Arc” by Adair Lara. Discusses how you build an emotional framework for your memoir.
  • “Full Disclosure” by Laurie Rosin. How to avoid glossing over the tough stuff in your life.

For more on memoir:

  • Writing Life Stories, 2nd edition, by Bill Roorbach—a longtime favorite at Writer’s Digest for more than 10 years

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4 thoughts on “The Big Catch-22 for Memoir Writers

  1. Marvin Dittfurth

    "Live life or tell about it" How well this describes my daily decision. There just isn’t enough life to do both it seems. I am a triathlete and my daily life consists of some training. Many times there isn’t enough brainpower left to "tell about it". The inherent passion I have for my lifestyle motivates me to share it but in doing there is so little left for the telling.

    thanks
    marvin dittfurth

  2. Tim Barrus

    I will be attacked for the crimes of high treason and parody (and caricature) for writing this but that is irrelevant. The real issues are not found anywhere in a How To book or in a How Not To book.

    The real issues are not about the wannabe writer and/or her PTA aspirations and/or ambition. The real issue is not about how a housewife or a writer lives his/her life. The real issue is not a cute little set of rules on a cute little list. Signifying nothing. The real issues have to do with storytelling, symbolism, mythology, the nuanced nature of reality, gatekeeping, cherry-picking, voice, commercialism, perception, who the audience actually is, and Art.

    I could begin with Art.

    But why bother. I can only withstand so much hate mail.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TelkERtD9dw&feature=related

    All anyone has to do is take a look at the above book trailer for a ripping good laugh.

    I could begin with why it matters.

    But it doesn’t.

    Never explain. Never say you’re sorry. Art does not apologize. And either do I.

  3. Theresa Milstein

    I joined a critique group with a couple of people wrote thinly-disguised memoirs. It made me realize how hard it is to write a good memoir. You need to have an interesting story (not just interesting to you). And you need to be able to write. I can see how there needs to be a balance between living a full life and spending many hours writing to be able to write about that life.

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