I’ve been a travel writer for almost 30 years, living my dream of exploring the world while sharing insider travel tips and vacation inspiration. My work has appeared in some of the top travel industry and consumer media outlets. But when I decided to shift gears and write my first memoir, I felt more out of place than a frequent flyer without a boarding pass. Creative nonfiction and life stories, after all, are a far cry from hotel reviews and tour recommendations. How could my writing succeed in an entirely new genre?
Well, it turns out that lessons learned from one job can sometimes apply to another. The more I worked on my memoir manuscript, the more I realized that while I certainly needed to adjust my mindset, my experience as a travel writer could help make my new book better.
Regardless of the type of work you do, you’ve probably already learned important skills that can apply to memoir writing, too—whether it’s how to connect with people, how to share a compelling story, or simply how to manage time and expectations. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.
1. Write an opening that truly hooks the reader.
When I’m traveling on assignment, the first paragraph sometimes pops into my head before I even start typing my report. Other times, I struggle to find the best way to begin my story. Either way, a strong opening is crucial for grabbing readers’ attention.
For my memoir, I began with a powerful visual—namely, the dramatic arrival of my mother in New York City, her face bruised and her arm in a sling. I figured that would pique readers’ curiosity and set the stage for the main storyline, which highlights how we dealt with her physical decline as we revisited our lives together. I thought I was all set.
But I wasn’t. After reviewing the chapter with a trusted friend, I decided that while this was certainly an appropriate way to begin the story, I was throwing readers too quickly into a rather bleak situation. The chapter opening failed to hint at the humor and quirky flashbacks that are also an integral part of the book. To remedy that, I wrote a prologue that was set several decades earlier, describing a lighter moment from my childhood (specifically, how I neglected my seventh-grade homework because I was too focused on creating my own imaginary airline. I was a weird kid). This brief prologue gives readers a preview of the funnier moments that appear in later pages.
In addition, I worked with my wonderful editor and publisher at Vine Leaves Press to come up with a title that’s also designed to lure readers: Prepare for Departure: Notes on a Single Mother, a Misfit Son, Inevitable Mortality and the Enduring Allure of Frequent Flyer Miles.
2. Read other people’s work.
My travel writing gets better when I read the work of other journalists. The same goes for memoirs—especially when I focus on authors with a voice or story that’s similar to mine.
I’ve also learned to be realistic as a memoirist—namely, to be aware that I’m not famous and very few people will immediately care about my story. Sure, we can all find inspiration in bestselling celebrity memoirs, but unless you’re a big name too, your memoir really falls into a different category of work. So when you set out to tell the story of your own life, keep in mind you’ve got a bigger hill to climb than the sparkly folks in Hollywood or Washington, D.C.
You can certainly learn from mainstream celebrity memoirists, but you can learn just as much from lesser-known authors who know how to tell a good story. It’s those writers, in fact, who’ve taught me the most about how to craft a compelling memoir.
3. Engage the senses.
Travel is a multisensory experience, and effective travel writing should be, too. When I’m crafting a travel story, I not only describe what destinations look like, but also how they smell, taste, sound, and feel. Successful memoir writing is similar. To connect with readers, you’ve got to take them on a journey that engages all the senses.
This can be challenging at times, especially when you’re writing scenes that took place decades ago. I’ve found it easiest when I’m seated by myself in a quiet place. I sometimes close my eyes and “look around” the scene that I’m about to write, imagining the sensory details. Whether it’s the slick vinyl seats of the giant Ford my mother drove as she scolded me for sticking my foot into a cake, or the aroma of jet fuel that ignited my wanderlust at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, multisensory descriptions go a long way toward making scenes more realistic.
4. Know your audience.
As a travel writer, I visit places that appeal to different kinds of travelers with diverse interests and budgets. My job isn’t to berate a hotel or restaurant because it doesn’t fit my own personal taste. My job is to understand the interests of the audience I’m writing for and to serve their needs. I must match what I’m writing about with the readers who would appreciate it the most.
A memoir, on the other hand, may seem to be all about you since it is, well, all about you. But if you’re truly looking to get published, you must think beyond the fact that this is your own personal story. Step back and ask yourself: Who are you writing for? What will readers get from this book? Why should people who don’t know you care about your story? Is it funny, educational, emotionally moving?
Comparing your work to other memoirs can help you to identify your audience. In my case, for example, I think readers who enjoy the work of David Sedaris, Samantha Irby, Augusten Burroughs, and Jenny Lawson might like my memoir, since it’s a quirky story that deals with serious topics with a healthy dose of dark humor.
5. Cast a wide net when looking for publishers.
I admit it. I dreamed of hooking up with a big-name publishing house for my first memoir. But if I’d held out for that, I still wouldn’t have a published book on my shelf today.
I began my career as a travel writer by thinking small. I volunteered to write a monthly travel column—with no pay—for a tiny free newspaper in New York City. Was it glamorous? No. Did it make me famous? No. But it got my name out there, proved that I could write, and gave me clips that I could show to other publishers that did pay. From there, I worked my way up.
I’ve taken a similar approach to memoirs. Sure, you can still pitch to the most legendary literary agents and big-name publishing houses (I certainly did). But unless you’re an established writer or a celebrity, you may not attract much interest. Don’t get discouraged. Keep moving. Submit to indie publishers, too (and you can do it without an agent, like I did). If you’re truly passionate about sharing your story with the world, you’ll find a way to do so.
6. Never give up.
As a travel writer, I’ve pitched countless articles to dozens of editors over the years. And I’ve weathered countless rejections—as well as “nonresponses” where the editor never even acknowledged my pitch. I’ve learned to not take it personally. I’ve worked as an editor, too, so I know they’re busy people.
My extensive experience with rejection helped me immensely as I turned my focus to memoir writing. While some of the students in my writing class were upset about negative responses they received from agents and editors, I was barely fazed. I just kept submitting. Rejections should not be taken as a judgment of your work. They’re just a determination of whether your story is a good fit for a particular agent or publisher, at a particular time.
To bolster my self-confidence as the rejections piled in, I submitted essays from my manuscript to several literary journals. Having my work published there assured me that I was on the right track with my book; there was indeed an audience for it.
Whether you’re a memoirist or a travel writer, the most important lesson of all is to not give up until you reach your destination—whatever that might be.