Should You Publish Your Memoir?

There have been some good posts about memoir recently – I’m thinking specifically of Janet Reid’s post on querying a memoir and Rachelle Gardner’s on when to write your memoir. I’ve noticed an increase in nonfiction queries lately, and have met with a few writers at conferences who are trying to get theirs published. I like memoir and personal essay collections a lot and don’t read them nearly as much as I used to. (Note: Not because I stopped liking them. It’s mostly because I don’t have the time.)

Creative nonfiction reminds me of why I wanted to be a writer. My expectations and fantasies of New York were formed when I read E.B. White, Joan Didion, and David Rakoff in college. I went head-to-head with writers like Nick Hornby and Chuck Klosterman in my obsession with pop culture analysis. I commiserated and laughed with David Sedaris over our crazy families. Through writers like Jennifer Finney Boylan, Leslie Feinberg, Mary Karr, and Joyce Johnson I formed my ideas of feminism and civil rights and shared in their experiences even though their lives couldn’t have been farther from my own.

I expect a lot from memoir writing and essays, which I think is why I haven’t found anything I’m head-over-heels in love with yet. I’m looking, always looking, but it’s hard. I need to be inspired, awestruck, unable to put down the book even after I finish it.

Reactions like that are harder to come by these days. I’m no longer the idealistic youth I was when I first discovered creative nonfiction, but I am still a romantic at heart. The difference now is that I’m a tougher reader, a stronger editor, and even if a story gives me that jaw-dropping reaction, I’m forced to look at it from a business angle. Can I sell this? Is there a place for it in the current market? Do I know the right editors to send this to? The same questions that go into whether I offer representation on a fiction project go into nonfiction projects. But, there’s an added question when it comes to nonfiction. Even though memoir writing is pitched to agents the same as a novel would be (see Janet Reid’s post linked above), the word “platform” looms over even the most literary and story-focused nonfiction writer.

As an agent, I end up rejecting queries from writers who have bravely shared their stories of abuse, drug addiction, war, divorce, cancer/fatal diseases, kidnapping, and almost every other painful or difficult thing you can think of. Because the thing is, these things are horrible, but they are also, unfortunately, common. There is a fine line between “relatable” and “boring.” Agents and publishers need to see your story on a national scale, and while things seem unique and important to the writer, their stories don’t always translate to a bigger picture.

That’s where platform comes back in. It’s an awful feeling to have to say to a writer “your story is beautiful, but not enough people will care.” (OK, not that I’ve ever said that to a writer, but that is what it comes down to.) People care about celebrities because they think they know who they are and want to relate to them. The difference between Michael Douglas’ cancer and your cancer is huge, I’m sorry to say.

I’m a big proponent of writing as a form of therapy. Treat your story like you are going to share it with the world. Get everything down on paper and then edit, edit, edit. Even if no one else ever reads it, EDIT. If someone outside of your family won’t understand something, cut it. If your emotions are still too strong to view a situation objectively, cut it. I’ve done this with my own experiences and it really does help. Sometimes we just need to get things down on paper so it escapes our minds. That doesn’t mean we need to publish it.

It’s obvious why people write memoirs. Sometimes it’s the only thing they can do. But, unless you are a celebrity or published author, ask yourself the following questions before you try to publish your memoir:

1. Can someone else write this story?
It’s true, everyone handles situations differently and learns different lessons. That is not what we mean when we ask whether your story is unique. As I mentioned above, most people have gone through what you’ve gone through. Unless you are the only person who can write about that topic, your memoir will probably get overlooked by agents and publishers. Excellent writing can often change our minds, but you should know going in that even if you have an MFA from a top program and have crafted your memoir flawlessly, it will be tough.

2. Why does this need to be published?
Most people write memoirs because they think others can learn from their personal experiences. This can be true, but that’s not a motive that interests me. I want to be told a great story, whether it’s your memoir or a novel. If you set out to inspire people or teach a lesson, make sure you’re not writing a self-help book instead of a memoir. Creative nonfiction means you employ the same techniques as novel writing, except the ideas come from real life instead of your imagination. The ability to tell a story and develop a character needs to be there in order for your memoir to get published.

3. Will this be more effective as a novel?
I give this advice to debut memoir writers a lot. If the story is interesting, but not particularly unique or exciting, I wonder why it’s so important to the writer to publish it as nonfiction. Fictionalizing real life can be just as therapeutic and it allows for creative freedom to build an even more interesting story for your reader. The heart of your story remains, but you’ll be free of platform-building. Not only that, your readers won’t expect as much from you. Reading a memoir creates an intimacy with the author, but if that author is just some stranger off the street, sometimes readers are left wondering, “yeah but so what?” A novel, on the other hand, transports the reader into a fictional world that’s far less demanding and just as real.

I tend to think of personal essay collections the same way I think of memoir, but I admit they are a slightly different breed. For one, you’d need to have a few pieces already published in some higher profile magazines or keep a regular blog that has a substantial following. Essays also, when done well, offer cultural or political analysis through a personal narrative, which is hard to convince readers of if you’re not at least mildly known.

I’m rooting for you, creative nonfiction writers. Just be prepared for how much harder it can be to break into nonfiction as an unknown author – even harder than fiction, and those writers can tell you just how hard that world is to navigate. Readers love true stories and feeling like they aren’t alone in the world, but more goes into memoir writing than being a regular person. Make sure you’re trying to publish for the right reasons, and if your story is as funny, sad, wonderful, and inspiring to us as it is to you, we’ll fight for it.

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5 thoughts on “Should You Publish Your Memoir?

  1. Brilliant advice, Sarah–and great insight into how the memoir genre differs: the bit, for example, of creative fiction requiring the same narrative skills as novel-writing, and how some memoir material might be more “sellable” if fictionalized, how fiction lowers reader expectations (so to speak). Thanks for that 🙂

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  2. I have a humorous memoir in the works as well as YA/MG fiction WIPs. My fear is that if I publish one or the other I will forever be pigeonholed as an author of that genre, and won't be able to be as creative as I want in both genres. Perhaps this a silly fear indeed. I find that the whole platform aspect can be dreary for a writer who doesn't want to spend hours building up a following and networking–hours that could well be spent in simply and madly writing. Anyway, great thoughts here. Just stumbled upon this after a long hiatus in visiting people's blogs!

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  3. For years I had the idea to someday transcribe and publish the journals I kept for like 20 years (finally getting back into journalling again after a hiatus of several years). I usually used fake names when referring to people, and I would've edited out the parts that were too personal or too boring. Now I wonder if there would be a market for such a thing, as much as I've always loved reading the journals of real people. I already have fictionalized some of the things I recorded.

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  4. Yea, it's really sad how common tragedies are. How they basically happen in all of our lives in some way or another.

    Anyway, I agree that fictionalizing reality can be extremely therapeutic. I never tried to publish it (obviously), but my best friend and I, when we were in high school, started a journal (my idea) that we passed back and forth, where I took the people we knew in real life and basically put them in a YA novel and made them do various things that I wished they would do in real life. It was very entertaining for both of us. We were able to release a lot of pent up feelings and frustrations about our lives through it.

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