The Big Catch-22 for Memoir Writers

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"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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