Write a Memoir to Remember!

An interesting life and excellent writing are key to a compelling memoir. Learn the elements that will help make your story stand out from the rest of the pack.
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Everyone has a story to tell, be it your own life story or that of a family member or friend. Memoir writing is a popular trend; no doubt another byproduct of the baby boom, many people in their 40s, 50s and 60s feel compelled to commit their life stories to paper, whether it be to honor someone who's made a difference in their lives, to heal wounds, to record their family histories, or to leave a legacy to future generations.

When judging the life stories category for theWriter's DigestNational Self-Published Book Awards and teaching memoir writing for the WritersOnlineWorkshops.com, I see a variety of memoirs. A few could be the next Angela's Ashes or The Color of Water or Rocket Boys or the real-life-turned-fiction family history memoir Cane River—that is, the best sellers of memoir writing. Others may not hit the best-seller list, but will still attract the attention of commercial publishers. Most are destined for self-publication, which likely means they will reach far fewer readers.

How to get noticed

How can you write your memoir so that it has the best chance of attracting an agent or publisher?

Jillian Manus, agent for Lalita Tademy's Cane River, says a commercially publishable memoir needs four crucial elements: wonderful writing; appeal for a large audience; at least one sympathetic character; and an inspirational, thought-provoking story.

Celina Spiegel, co-editorial director at Riverhead Books and editor for James McBride's The Color of Water, agrees. "No matter how appealing your story, if you're going to write it down, you have to be able to write," she says. "Many people have wonderfully interesting lives that they will never be able to communicate on the page, while others with less dramatic lives, but who are talented as writers and as observers of their lives, will be able to make otherwise ordinary events seem riveting and meaningful.

"Part of the gift of the memoirist is to be able to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, to create meaning through seeing a pattern in a life, and to be able to convey both the meaning and the story."

Beyond being an excellent writer and having a fascinating life, other elements can help your memoir stand out.

On the Shelf

These books may be helpful as you write your memoir: Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir edited by William Zinsser (Mariner) Memoirs of the Soul: Writing Your Spiritual Autobiographyby Nan Merrick Phifer (Walking Stick Press) You Can Write a Memoirby Susan Carol Hauser (Writer's Digest Books) Writing the Memoirby Judith Barrington (Eighth Mountain Press) Write From Life by Meg Files (Writer's Digest Books)


Some common themes for memoirs include dealing with the Vietnam experience; losing a child to a terminal illness or suicide; coping with a physical handicap; leaving one's husband or family in midlife to start over in an exotic location; finding God; and recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction. Many people can relate to one of these experiences, but what twist does your story have to set it apart from other memoirs that cover the same general ground?

One common memoir theme is the diagnosis, treatment and survival of cancer. Susan Rust, who is writing her memoir based on her breast cancer experiences, has a unique story in several ways. Besides coping with the traditional circumstances revolving around mastectomy (a double one, at that) and chemotherapy, she is a divorced mom who dates. How does a woman in her mid-40s tell a man she's dating that she has no breasts? And when should she tell him? Rust's talent for humor writing adds another element that the average breast cancer survivor story lacks.

The hook

It's the rare writer who can open a story with the day someone was born, grab the reader's attention and, more importantly, keep it. Many successful memoirists choose instead to use fiction writing's flashback technique. They start in the middle of the story, then use flashbacks to fill in the gaps.

Edward Ball, author of the award-winning Slaves in the Family, initially thought he'd write his family history memoir in chronological order, but his editor suggested he use a "flash back/flash forward structure—one chapter in the past, one chapter in the present," which worked very well to connect the story and the reader with both living and past generations.

Consider opening your life story narrative with one of the happiest, most memorable, unusual or exciting events, or a turning point. Create an air of mystery so the reader will want more. This is how Rust begins her breast cancer memoir:

I am afraid of chemo. I picture being strapped into an electric chair and hooked up to an assortment of machines that will do weird things to me. I'll be radioactive, glow in the dark. My hair will fall out instantly, my skin will turn gray. I'll look like the walking dead. Or maybe I'll be too weak to walk at all. The treatment will take days. It will hurt. My outwardly healthy-looking body will deflate like a balloon with each hit to my system, until I'm a shadow of my former self. My clothes will hang on skin and bones. There will be dark rings around my eyes, a shadowy pallor, a gaunt look about me. My kids won't recognize me. I won't recognize myself. I won't be able to concentrate. Life will become a blur, one medical moment after another.

Rather than beginning with the day she was diagnosed, she plunges us into chemotherapy—the most terrifying part of the whole ordeal, perhaps even scarier than her own mortality or losing a breast. Everyone is afraid of chemo, and Rust becomes our voice for those unspeakable fears. Though the opening portrait is grim, we continue to read because we want to see—and believe—that it will be better than this, that there is hope.

The story

All good stories—whether fiction, nonfiction or memoir—have these basic elements:

Memoir Markets

Here's a sampling of publishers who indicated interest in memoirs in 2002 Writer's Market. For more information or other markets, consult Writer's Market or www.writersmarket.com.) Chicago Review Press, Acquisitions: Cynthia Sherry, executive editor (general nonfiction), 814 N. Franklin, Chicago IL 60610; Tel: (312)337-0747; Fax: (312)337-5985; e-mail: csherry@ipgbook.com; www.ipgbook.com. Publishes hardcover and trade paperback originals. Publishes 30-35 titles/year. Receives 200 queries and 600 mss/year. 50% of books from first-time authors; 50% from unagented writers. Pays 7-12% royalty. Offers $1,500-5,000 average advance. Publishes mss 18 months after acceptance. Accepts simultaneous submissions. Responds in 3 months. Guidelines for #10 SASE. Query with outline, table of contents, and 1-2 sample chapters. Farrar, Straus & Giroux Paperbacks,Acquisitions: Elisabeth Dyssegaard, executive editor, 19 Union Square West, New York NY 10003; Tel: (212)741-6900; Fax: (212)633-9385. Publishes trade paperback originals and reprints. Publishes 70 titles/year. Receives 1,500-2,000 queries/mss per year. Pays 6% royalty on retail price. Advance varies. Accepts simultaneous submissions. Responds in 2 months to queries and proposals. Book catalog and mss guidelines free. Query with outline, 2-3 sample chapters, cover letter describing project and SASE. No unsolicited mss. Only accepts agented submissions. Loft Press, Acquisitions: Ann A. Hunter, editor-in-chief, P.O. Box 126, Fort Valley VA 22652; Tel: (540)933-6210; www.loftpress.com. Publishes hardcover and trade paperback originals and reprints. Publishes 12-20 titles/year. Receives 200 queries/year and 150 mss/year. 50% of books from first-time authors; 100% of books from unagented writers. Pays royalty on net receipts. Publishes mss 6 months after acceptance. Query with outline and 1 sample chapter. Encounter Books, Acquisitions: Peter Collier, publisher, 116 New Montgomery St., Suite 206, San Francisco CA 94105; Tel: (415)538-1460; Fax: (415)538-1461; www.encounterbooks.com. Publishes hardcover originals and trade paperback reprints. Publishes 12-20 titles/year. Receives 500 queries/year and 200 mss/year. 40% of books from first-time authors; 60% of books from unagented writers. Pays 7-10% royalty on retail price. Offers $2,000-25,000 advance. Publishes mss 22 months after acceptance. Accepts simultaneous submissions. Responds in 3 months. Query with outline and 1 sample chapter. The Narrative Press, Acquisitions: William Urschel, publisher (true first-person adventure and exploration), P.O. Box 2487, Santa Barbara CA 93101; Tel: (805)884-0160; Fax: (805)884-6127; e-mail: customerservice@narrativepress.com; www.narrativepress.com. Terms: Publishes trade paperback originals and reprints, and electronic originals and reprints. Publishes 50 titles/year. Receives 100 queries/year and 20 submissions/year. 10% of books from first-time authors; 50% of books from unagented writers. Publishes mss 2 months after acceptance. Accepts simultaneous submissions. Responds in 1 month. Query with SASE.

Conflicts.Things, places or people who get in the main character's way, preventing him or her from achieving goals or desires. The story shows how the character overcomes these obstacles—or doesn't. Do wrap things up by the story's end; unresolved conflicts only frustrate readers.

A beginning, middle and end. "If you, the writer, are not certain what your story is, you'll quickly lose your readers," says Homer H. Hickam Jr., author of Rocket Boys: A Memoir. He advises "choosing only those episodes in your life that keep the story on track." While you may have a main plot and a couple of subplots, ask yourself whether each scene is relevant to those plots. If you cut that scene, will the story stand fine without it? If so, then it's not relevant to your memoir.

Believable, sympathetic characters.You're writing about real-life people, who by their very nature of existence should be believable. But some writers tend to portray those they love through rose-colored glasses or those they despise too harshly.

Character evolution.As in fiction writing, characters in a memoir must grow and change, usually as a result of conflicts and resolutions. Tell the reader why you made certain life decisions. Include details that led to resolutions. Reflect on your past; don't just record it.

Research and context

When my online students are asked what sources they will use to write their memoirs, those writing about their own lives and the recent past respond with "my memories." That is what a memoir is drawn from—your memories—but there are still considerations to keep in mind regarding context.

You may be writing about an event in the 1950s, or as recently as the 1990s, and not realize you still need to explain things. For example, suppose you're writing about your time in the Navy during the Korean War. You are describing the training you went through and mention wearing a Mae West. Will your readers understand this term? Along with explaining what a Mae West was—a life jacket—you may also need to do some background research to help your reader understand why a life jacket was named for this actress. Indeed, will readers in their 20s today know who Mae West was? That could require further explanation. In general, don't assume that your readers will understand slang terms or pop culture references.

While your memoir begins with your memories, you should also look to others for additional details and background information. When James McBride was writing The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, he interviewed "probably a hundred people," even though his story was based on his own memories. "I sat down and talked to people, and I got information from them that I didn't necessarily remember that clearly. So I interviewed all sorts of people who could give me details."

And don't worry if another person's memories conflict with what you remember—you will never convince the other person that it really happened another way. Tell the story as you remember it, then you could always add, "My sister remembers another version, however. ..."

The details

While writing your memoir, probe as deeply as you can to fill out a scene or an event. Use photographs, letters, diaries, interviews or background research to explain, reflect and fill out your narrative. In the details, you will begin to make sense of your life experiences. Some budding memoirists rush through a scene without stopping to smell the rain on the pavement. Granted, you don't want to overwhelm your readers with details; you have to keep the story moving along. If the scene or event is crucial, slow down and describe it so that the reader can experience it with you.

Keep the faith

Agent Jillian Manus advises that if your memoir doesn't attract someone's attention right away, go the self-publishing route. She, along with other agents and editors, keep an eye on self-published books. It also can help to enter competitions. One inspirational memoir that won the Writer's Digest National Self-Published Book Awards, Kenny Kemp's Dad Was a Carpenter: Blueprints for a Meaningful Life, was picked up by HarperCollins San Francisco in a six-figure deal. So get that memoir written and in print!

This article appeared in the July 2002 issue of Writer's Digest.

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