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Memoir Monday: Do You Have a Story To Tell?

First, I just have to say, this is my 100th blog post! I started Writerland in November, and so far I’ve made some really wonderful blog buddies (Sierra, Kristan, Jackie, Kristen, Christie, and J.P. to name but a few), and I want to thank you all for stopping by on a regular basis. It’s people like you who make blogging worthwhile.

And now, before it’s Tuesday, our Memoir Monday topic of the week: Do You Have a Story To Tell? My short answer to this question is yes, of course, everyone has a story to tell, and everyone should write it down—if for nothing more than for your progeny. (A couple of years ago I dug up a copy of my grandfather’s memoirs and edited them, had them laid out, and had them perfect bound for my dad for his 80th birthday. It’s so fun to read about his life in the teens and 20s—almost a hundred years ago today!)

But is your story interesting enough to get published? That’s a very different question. My feeling is this: ANY story can be interesting enough to get published if told the right way. You can make sitting on a tree stump all day interesting if you can write well enough. Look at The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the story of a man’s life after a stroke, during which he can only communicate by blinking his left eye. Not a whole lot of action in that story, and it’s BEAUTIFUL. More recently, look at Melanie Gideon’s The Slippery Year—as she put it in a New York Times article, a book about nothing. But it’s hilarious. Another example someone blogged about recently: Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood. No tragedy, no abuse, just a good old fashioned happy childhood.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the memoirs that have come out in the past ten years and how/why they were successful:

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff—already a famous author
The Liar’s Club by Mary Carr—growing up in a family of “liars and drunks”
Name All The Animals by Alison Smith—story of the aftermath of her brother’s death
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey—story of a drug addict, but largely fabricated
The Boys of My Youth by Jo Anne Beard—a exquisitely written collection of essays about nothing and everything
Lucky by Alice Siebold—story of the author’s rape—gained popularity after publication of The Lovely Bones
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers—raises his brother after both of his parents die
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt—grew up in extreme poverty
Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres—exiled with her adopted black brother to a Dominican Republican reform school
An Education by Lynn Barber—already a famous journalist
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami—already a famous author
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls—raised by crazy parents
Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs—raised by crazy parents
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert—a je ne sais quoi that struck a chord with the public
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson—timely with Afghanistan in the news
Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott—already a famous author
The Slippery Year by Melanie Gideon—a very funny book that rode on the coat tails of Eat, Pray, Love
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah—author was one of the lost boys of Sudan

I don’t mean to diminish the quality of the memoirs by famous authors like Haruki Murakami and Anne Lamott, but really, if any old Joe had written a memoir about his running routine, no one would have published it. Many of these memoirs are about extraordinary childhoods—rape, poverty, abuse, early death, and crazy parents. Two were timely in that Afghanistan and the lost boys of Sudan were in the news. The Boys of My Youth and An Education are two in which nothing extraordinary happens, although Lynn Barber’s close relationship with Penthouse Magazine puts her in the celebrity category. That leaves three books of those I listed—The Boys of My Youth; Eat, Pray, Love; and The Slippery Year—that sold either because the writing was extraordinary or the story somehow struck a chord with the public. This is NOT to say that the writing isn’t equally extraordinary in books like A Heartbreaking Work, but the others have the added advantage of having either a) a famous author or b) a tragic/extraordinary story to tell. As I mentioned above, The Boys of My Youth is exquisite. The Slippery Year is hilarious, and Eat, Pray, Love somehow just worked. And parts of it were very funny. But all these books sold before the publishing industry fell apart.

The good news is that the memoir is still alive and kicking. If you go to Barnes & Noble, there is table dedicated to memoirs in addition to the memoir and autobiography bookshelves. At my local Pegasus, too, there is a memoir bookshelf right up front next to the fiction and nonfiction bookshelves.

If you take a look at Publisher’s Marketplace, the memoirs that are selling now are mostly written by celebrities, with a smattering of harrowing stories about overcoming the odds. You don’t find many about housewives raising small children or chefs working at restaurants—ordinary people doing ordinary things.

A quick look at what’s sold recently:

Gary Marshall’s memoir (famous)
Memoir of an Afghan-American interpreter (timely)
Story about working on an oyster farm (nothing extraordinary about that)
Story about underground street musicians (interesting but not extraordinary)
TV star memoir (famous)
Memoir of bomb disposal officer in Afghanistan and Iraq (timely for two reasons: because Afghanistan and Iraq are in the news and because of The Hurt Locker, which won the Oscar for best picture.)
Ron Reagan’s memoir (famous)
Memoir about Hurricane Katrina (timely)
New Orleans Saints quarterback memoir (famous and timely)
Nobel Peace Prize winner memoir (famous and timely)

You get the picture. Aside from the oyster farm and street musician memoirs, all the others are either written by someone famous or related to a story recently in the news. So if you’re worried your life story isn’t interesting enough to write about, ask yourself this. How important is it to you that it get published? Would you be happy having written it if it never does? My answer to this question was yes, I wanted to write it whether it got published or not. That said, I REALLY want it to get published. So the next step is figuring out how to package it, and market it, to fit one of the above categories: famous, timely, or one helluva good story.

10 comments to Memoir Monday: Do You Have a Story To Tell?

  • I have a hard time believing any of the the mentioned celebrities actually wrote their memoir. Thats is the main reason why I don't bother with them.

    And I agree with you, and story can be made interesting, if you write it well enough.

  • “My feeling is this: ANY story can be interesting enough to get published if told the right way.”

    Ditto fiction. Believe it or not, there are plenty of BORING @$$ fiction ideas too, lol. It’s all in how it’s told. (Although really, plot doesn’t hurt. :P)

  • I recently came across an agent or editor's blog that stated that it's not enough to have a big catastrophe happen. Like fiction, it has to be written well, compelling, and the person must grow as a person. The blog author used cancer as an example – a lot of people have battled it. What about the memoir is unique?

    Julie Powell made Julia Child famous again. I always liked Julia Child, so I read her memoir, My Life in France. It was a wonderful memoir. She made post-war France come alive. She spent eighteen years working on and waiting for Mastering the Art of French Cooking to get published. Sometimes it all just comes together.

  • Kristan – good point about fiction!

    Travener – I want to read that book!

    J.M. – Very true. The only celebrity memoirs I like to read are by famous authors because a) You can assume they wrote them themselves and b) I want to read about writers' lives.

    Theresa – Also very true. There are a gazillion memoirs about cancer, drug abuse, alcoholism, etc. Who cares unless there's something unique about the story or the writing is extraordinary?

  • One of these days I’m going to write a memoir of my so-so career with the Very Important Organization but I have to wait for a few people to die first so they can’t sue me.

  • anne gallagher

    That was very sweet what you did for your dad's birthday. I'd love to get a hold of my uncle's memoir's, he was in WWII in Turkey.

    The story has to be well-written and have an edge, but I also think it needs to touch the reader in some way, to resonate within that person so they never forget it. Fiction or memoir alike.

  • I really like this post, Meghan.

    You are right about all the factors that get memoirs published these days. I'm glad you are taking fate into your own hands by starting this blog. Nice work!

  • Anne – I agree, and I think memoir and fiction are more similar than many people realize.

    wildguppy – thanks, and good to see you today!

  • This is a great post, Meghan! I loved your analysis and your point that basically, you already have to be famous to become famous. Re: nonfiction, I'm not sure I'd ever do it, though. I love telling stories, and I write fiction for myself as much as I do for other people. Nonfiction and memoir to me feel more journalism than literature, and I have no interest in journalism. Oh, boy, I feel like this is going to eventually come back to bite me! Thanks for getting me in trouble, Meghan!

  • It's going to bite you right now, Samuel 🙂 I really think memoir writing is VERY much like fiction writing – scenes, descriptive details, creating a story arc, etc. I've been a journalist, and I don't think memoir writing is anything like journalism. Nonfiction writing is a different story.