Thursday, July 27, 2017

Non-commercial memoir

"I've had an interesting life."
"I want to help people avoid the mistakes I've made."
"I want people to know they can survive that stuff."

You wouldn't think these phrases could make my blood run cold, would you? They do

Silver haired ladies packing pink notebooks with stories about their lives, often accompanied by photo albums, cookies, and grandchild-made clunky jewelry are more terrifying than outraged romance writers (don't call romance "bodice rippers" and expect to live) or petrified-by-fear first time authors. They are writers on a mission and they can't believe I'm not going to help them.

For years, I'd stop these writers, as gently as I could (which is to say sometimes it wasn't at all), and tell them memoir was "a difficult category" (as though some aren't) and absent some amazingness like they'd changed a law, forced an investigation, or earned notoriety of the worst sort, these books were not going to sell.

So yes, I said "I can't sell this" to parents of murdered children; to men and women who survived and thrived despite years of abuse; to men and women who had pulled themselves out of the most abject circumstances through sheer determination and strength of will. And if you think it was thoughtless, or dismissive, or that it didn't haunt me, I hope you'd be wrong.

These people came to me with purest of intentions; they didn't want money, or fame. They'd be on Oprah if they had to but all they really wanted was the girls in the coal hollers of West Virginia to know there was life outside of the only place they knew.

They wanted to comfort the sick of heart; encourage those who carried unbearable burdens. They only wanted to help, and they came to me for encouragement and I turned them away. Not easily, not happily, but turned away nonetheless.

I told them to self-publish of course. I had my patter about the value of self-publishing but the underlying attitude was "this isn't important enough for many people to care about or read." And by "this" I was saying to people "your life isn't important enough for people to care about." And to those people who had survived their own apocalypse, it was as if I'd said no greater good will come of your suffering. Not in those words of course, never outright. But they were survivors; they've learned to read what is not said.

This went on for years. More people and more stories than I can calculate. To cover the pain, I indulged ourselves in the only remedy available: laughter. Among agents there is one topic we all groan about and share stories: memoirs.

But all of us hate this situation. We have to say no to so many people, for so many subjective and often irrational reasons (no I can't sell cozy mysteries without a craft theme) that these pure of heart and empty of anything but altruism people broke our hearts. But we are masters at concealing that through joking around, so we did.

It went on for years. Then one day, a small piece fell into place.

I went to the annual conference of biography writers in Washington DC. BIO is a terrific organization filled with serious writers who know how to have fun. I attended several panels, took copious notes, and learned a lot. I soon realized how much biographers depend on written records, and how often those written records are letters.

Letters that have gone the way of the dodo bird in our new electronic world. Yes we still send cards and thank you notes, but when was the last time you got a long chatty personal letter from your auntie in Ireland? And I'm not talking about the Christmas letters that are copied and sent out wholesale to near and dear. Real letters? I can tell you when I got the last one: 1995.

The BIO conference was in 2011. In 2012, the second piece fell into place at a conference in Louisville, Kentucky. I realized personal memoirs would be the only written records of what it was like to grow up in West Virginia before electricity. Before a lot of things. Someday in the not too distant future, if you want to know what it was like "back then" these memoirs will be the only way to know.

Thus, these memoirs can serve a much greater social purpose than simply memoir. They are the written records of how we lived. It isn't an indulgence to write them. It's a social imperative. There may not be a lot of people who want to read these memoirs. There may only be one. But that one might be a historian doing research in the far distant future and if we want them, those kids of ours, to know what it was like, we have to tell them now.

And with that importance comes a responsibility: the memoirs need to be more than stream of remembrance. They need to be almost a form of reporting. People verifying facts, talking to other people from that time to get alternate view points. A "reported memoir" like The Night of
the Gun by David Carr.

Here's what David Carr says about his book

In one sense, my story is a common one, a white boy misdemeanant who lands in a ditch and is restored to sanity through the love of his family, a God of his understanding and a support group that will go unnamed. But if the whole truth is told, it does not end there. The book will be fundamentally different than a tell-all, or more commonly, tell-most. It will be a rigorously clear-eyed reported memoir in which the process of discovery will be part of the narrative motor...For instance, my brother asked if I was going to give him credit for bailing me out after I was arrested for possession of pot as an 18-yr.-old in a Wisconsin state park. I had not even remembered the incident. You remember the story you can live with, not the one that happened. (italics mine)

I haven't heard anyone else talking about memoir like this yet, so I have a feeling I may be a voice in the wilderness for a while. And there's always the three am fear that I am completely and totally wrong about this. Only time will tell.

But in the meantime, I'm writing a form reply to give to every person who queries me about what I've come to call Non-Commercial Memoir. I hope to encourage them to see the higher social purpose of their work, and encourage them to do the tough work of writing a reported version of their lives.

I'm going to be very interested in how this is received. I do know one thing now: it's a helluva lot better than only saying "no, I can't help you," to people who deserve more.

Originally pubished at
BiblioBuffett on 7/12/2012


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Thirty years ago we promised ourselves that when Nana (born in the late 1800’s) moved in we would record her memories. She was not a writer but she was a hell of a story teller. Her stories were like lullabies to my babies, and newspapers to us, so I promised everyone that when my little ones rocked with her, I’d tape. We never did. I never did.
Her library burned down when she was ninety-eight, and everyone else who remembers her stories are gone. I am left with only a few scraps scribbled somewhere in my heart.
That is why I wrote a memoir. That is why I spent every publishing penny I had to have it copy edited. Traditionally published, unlikely, self-published probably.
My audience? Not sure if I will ever have one. But when my library burns down there will be a record of the times in which I lived and loved and persevered. I am comforted in knowing there will be something left of me for future eyes, something which is more tangible than ashes blowing in the wind.

Kitty said...

For years now I've said that in this reach out and touch y'all technology we seem to communicate less and less. My Uncle Henry was the last person with whom I corresponded. He lived in Hawaii, back when long distance phone calls were budget busters. He wrote long, hilarious letters. We wrote to each other for years until he reached his 90s and stopped caring about life. Since then, there has been no one to fill the void Henry left behind.

Last year, I got the idea that I should write down what life was like growing up in the 50s and 60s for my children...and their children. I got the idea from one of those remember-when emails. Y'know, Remember when we drank from the garden hose? I thought if I combined these vignettes with pictures my mother took, I could give each of my grown children a memoir. I thought it would make a neat Christmas gift.

french sojourn said...

Were your blog post a query letter, I would say, send me pages, damn, send the whole thing. It made a believer out of me. Well done.

Cheers Hank.

Susan said...

I have so much to say about this. But first, and most importantly, thank you Janet for being as gentle as possible with these writers and their life stories It must be a very fine line between wanting to share their stories (because every story deserves to be shared) and needing to compete in the market.

I've been writing a WWII-centered novel for almost ten years now. It's what I affectionately call The Damn Novel because it's taking so long to write--partly because I know in my heart this is my magnum opus and I want to live with these characters and setting on my own for a while, and partly because the research is exhausting. The book is not about the war, but rather about the vicinity of war--how war affected the everyday life of those small towns in France and created heroes out of people who will never see their name in a paper. Mothers who cooked meals for their children when little food was to be found. Soldiers who returned with injuries to a life that was the same but also irrevocably changed. Children who grew up under a threat they didn't fully understand.

I have to do a lot of digging to find research on life during WWII, and I keep returning to personal accounts, letters, to give me a real sense of the time and to understand who people were. This is what I love about history--it humbles you, knowing we're very much the same even if we're decades or centuries apart.

It's the same reason why I write what I classify "nostalgic fiction" (can we make this a thing, please!). It's a chance for me to share pieces of my own memories--my family's memories--through the details I use. I want people to be able to read my books and understand that no matter what the time period, we share the same experiences, just in different form. And I want people to read my books and know how I lived. Because my books are my letters.

I suspect that's the real common thread beneath all these submitted memoirs--stories of survival, hope, and wanting people to know and see us for who we are. So there's value in our experiences.

So we're not forgotten.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I think you really have it, Janet, both where you say "all they really wanted was the girls in the coal hollers of West Virginia to know there was life outside of the only place they knew." and also " personal memoirs would be the only written records of what it was like to grow up in West Virginia before electricity. Before a lot of things. Someday in the not too distant future, if you want to know what it was like "back then" these memoirs will be the only way to know." My library has a local history room, and I think a lot of the material we have is self published things along those lines, or sometimes even preserved diaries from people in the area. Granted, these examples are of narrow interest, as opposed to The Night of the Gun, but still, it's very interesting.

I've had occasional family members say things like "oh you've had an interesting life, you should write about it" and seriously my most successful stories are where "weird shit" is happening, how am I supposed to write my memoir (I guess other than my half sister discovering me via fortuneteller...)

What I have on occasion done is profoundly fictionalized life occurrences. Like a short story I have on submission now, which I think works (and my first reader), wherein the biographical bits are unchanged and the fiction is woven in.

Timothy Lowe said...

I agree with Hank. Gorgeous post.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Speaking of letters.

I met my parents for the first time after they died.
Two days after I became an adult orphan, I discovered, at the bottom of my mother’s cedar chest, 125 love letters my parents had written to each other while separated by WWII. I spoke on Fox News in NYC (back when I liked Fox) about the letters. They sent a limo, I sat next to Dr. Keith Ablow in the green room, it was very exciting...blah, blah, blah.

Anyway, those letters are a priceless record, not only of the times, but of how I discovered that my parents, (my mother in particular), were not the people I perceived them to be. I am heartbroken that I did not know my mother, at all. I only knew the person she allowed us to see.

That is the reality of letters, that is why we should never discount their value, why we should save them and pass them on through memoir or in a little box marked, “Precious”.

This is my second comment, I am over my word limit.
Having said that, today’s post is reassurance that all the time and effort, all the essays, articles and op-eds I have written and folded into my memoir are of significance, regardless of how many eyes read it.

Write on Reiders!
Have a nice day.

Amy Schaefer said...

This is exactly why I wrote my blog while we lived on the boat. It was a chance to keep family and friends back home up-to-date, and I hoped it would serve as a reminder of the trip for my kids someday. Publication was never on my radar. It falls squarely into the "historical record" category, and that's fine with me.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

A simply beautiful post. No, memoir is, perhaps, not the best for commercial publication, but it is invaluable. I keep my grandparents old letters and journals as well as my parents and my own. My paternal grandmother kept old newspaper clippings and that is a treasure trove. All of these things inspire understanding and imagination. This post brought to mind one of my favorite songs, really poetry put to music. I give you "Photograph" by Michael Stipe, Bill Berry, Natalie A. Merchant, and Peter Buck.

I found this photograph
Underneath the picture glass
Tender face of black and white
Beautiful, a haunting sight

Looked into an angels smile
Captivated all the while
From the hair and clothes she wore
I'd place her in between the wars

Was she willing when she sat?
Posed the pretty photograph
Save her flowering and fair
Days to come, days to share
A big smile for the camera

How did she know?
The moment could be lost forever
Forever more

I found this photograph
Stashed between the old joist walls
In a place where time is lost
Lost behind, where all things fall

Broken books and calendars
Letters script in careful hand
Music too, a standard tune by
Some forgotten big brass band

From the threshold what's to see
Of our brave new century?
The television's just a dream
Radio, silver screen
Big smile for the camera

How did she know?
The moment could be lost forever
Forever more

Was her childhood filled with rhymes
Stolen hooks, impassioned crimes?
Was she innocent or blind
To the cruelty of her time?

Was she fearful in her day
Was she hopeful, did she pray?
Were there skeletons inside
Family secrets, sworn to hide?

Did she feel the beat that stirs
The fall from grace of wayward girls?
Was she tempted to pretend
The love and laughter, until the end?

MA Hudson said...

Wouldn't it be great if the historians of the future were forced to sift through ancient memoirs to learn about the suffering caused by cancer, child abuse, and murder?
Wishful thinking, I know. Most likely the only things they'd learn about are the quaintly archaic systems we have for dealing with these traumas.

Janet - I like your new system for Non-Commercial Memoirs. I think it's really lovely.

Colin Smith said...

Each of the Beatles, at one time or another, complained about all the "tell-all" books about their career by saying, "You weren't there! You don't know what it was like." McCartney has even sung this sentiment ("Early Days" from his "New" album in 2013).

Beatle historian/biographer Mark Lewisohn shot back a bit at this by reminding us that a) our memories are not infallible, and b) there's often a context to our experiences that we don't know about at the time, and may never know about, that makes sense of what happened. This was his premise for starting is magnum opus, ALL THESE YEARS, a multi-volume Beatles history, that takes in interviews from the Fab Four over the past 50 years, letters and anecdotes from family, friends, and fans, and a lot of historical digging. One fascinating fact he unearthed (that I might have shared here already sometime), is that a famous picture of the Beatles at the dock in Liverpool in 1963 was taken on the exact same spot that John Lennon's grandfather (or great-grandfather, I don't recall) got off the boat having emigrated from Ireland. John never knew that. It wouldn't have been part of his memories. But it gives added color and dimension to his story.

All that to say, I agree, and I applaud David Carr's approach to memoir. We all have a story to tell. Maybe one day I'll tell mine. As a first-generation immigrant to the US, I ought to. Future generations may want to know.

I hope you get a lot of salable non-commercial memoir, Janet. :)

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

What a fantastic post! In the hordes of silver haired ladies you don't know if someone is anxiously clutching The Glass Castle, Hillbilly Elegy, or Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight.

I have my grandfather's WWI journal and scrapbook. In the scrapbook someone cut apart letters to save the logos on the front of the paper, not understanding that future generations would long to see the letters.

There is a group called Tales of Cape Cod that collects memoirs of and recordings. Because of them I have a cassette of my grandmother talking about Sandwich Glass.

I think you are on to something important here and a way to tell the silver haired ladies that their work could mean something to someone. I know my grandfather through his journal and so will the great great great grandchildren.

Donnaeve said...

The latest memoir I read was HILLBILLY ELEGY by J.D. Vance, and I believe, given what you've stated here, it is exactly that, a "form of reporting. People verifying facts, talking to other people from that time to get alternate view points.

I say that because that's how it felt to me at the time, like he was writing about growing up poor, in Appalachia where his Mamaw and Papaw mostly raised him and boy oh boy those two were something else. Mamaw especially with her "F'ing this," and "F'ing that."

If I were a betting person, I'd say this lands smack dab into your category of "reported memoir," so, IMHO, I think time will say you were right.

Donnaeve said...

Ha, Sharyn I was busy writing my comment and see we're on the same wavelength regarding HILLBILLY ELEGY!

The Noise In Space said...

Very timely article for me (even if it was originally written years ago). My mom is currently working on a "reporting"-style memoir for my grandmother. We're lucky--my grandmother's sister was a bit of a pack rat, and saved a lot of letters my grandmother wrote while she was living as a housewife on an Army base in Germany in the 1960s. No, it's not the kind of memoir that people will gobble up, it doesn't have that commercial appeal, but there's nothing that matches coming across a "brand new, must try" recipe for jello-pineapple-and-pimento-cheese salad, or one for apple butter bread with "don't bother" scrawled across the top ("Don't Bother" Bread is now a legend in our house), or reading about the newfangled talking doll my aunt got for Christmas, all while cursing the routine inspections and difficulties that come with life on a military base. It's a different look at a fascinating time period.

But while our Shark has addressed the importance of this genre, I'm a bit confused about one thing - does she still think self-publishing is still the best suggestion, even after her convention revelations? I can't imagine this project will be a hot seller in either self-pubbed or traditional, honestly, and especially not without any kind of publicity...sometimes I wonder if we should just be handing the items over to a library or a museum instead. It's an interesting collection of letters, pictures, and recipes...what would other Woodland Creatures do with them?

Elissa M said...

My 92-year-old father died last Thursday. I'm fighting the urge to tell you all about him. I'd be way over word count if I did: raised by a single mother, started working at age 7, enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and fought in his first of three "hot" wars by 18, ended up in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps on the front lines of the Cold War (starting with the Berlin Blockade, handcuffed to a briefcase on a train being searched by Russian soldiers). He had stories upon stories, and he told them well. But he didn't write them down. And I didn't, either.

We are writers. Janet's message isn't just for those who have a story to tell. It's for those who know how to write those stories. If you know someone with a story who doesn't think anyone would be interested, interview them. Write it down. It'll be good practice, and you'll have no regrets.

Ann Bennett said...

Being a hobbyist writer, who knew there was so many fine points to writing a good book, I have always felt a bit sad when people share they are writing a memoir. This is great to read. Memoirs are designed for the future.

I'm a piddling genealogist, it can put you to sleep at night. Reading a book keeps me awake. But some of the old letters are quite moving. You can feel the desperation of a civil war soldier wanting to know how his motherless children were doing.

Anonymous said...

Interesting posts. I, for one, as an avid reader, have been mostly turned off by memoirs; I read a few and couldn't help but think, "This is not interesting enough to be a book." There have been exceptions, of course: The Glass Castle, Just Kids. But not many. So now I generally choose fiction over memoir.

I don't believe my life has been interesting enough or ever will be to warrant a memoir. But that doesn't mean my experiences aren't valuable and I don't want to share them in small ways. Which is why so much of the fiction I write takes into account my own experiences, my own feelings, settings I've been in, on occasion dialogue I've actually experienced.

So to these people, in addition to encouraging them to write for posterity, couldn't you also say, "Put some of that in a novel"? That way, they get to record some of their experiences, but at the same time, they can make them, you know, interesting!

I know, I know: but then you run into the trouble of people who are unable to separate fact from fiction and make the wrong choice in the novel because they want to keep it closer to their own experiences. I've made that mistake myself!

Mister Furkles said...

Some of the most difficult things to find are writings about how ordinary people lived. I'd like to write historical fiction about ordinary people living during extraordinary times. Such things sometimes exist in university libraries or in the Library of Congress. But it is difficult to know how to find them.

Speaking of ancestors who witnessed uncommon events, some of mine sailed the year after the Mayflower, others came to Virginia before 1620, still others crossed the Appalachia mountains with Danial Boone. We have nothing of their writings other than a photo copy of family pages from family bible.

Everybody has ancestors who witnessed extraordinary times and so few of us have any written records of them.

Before you pass to the next life, write about the events of your life, not to publish, but so you progeny will know a bit of life before.

Susan Bonifant said...

I am so impressed by the way you've described this evolution.

When I first started reading the post, I was kind of looking forward to a tale of the silver-haired grandmother who showed up on your stoop, but it's okay, this is better.

You're the best.

Susan said...

Carolynn: This is a wonderful story. I'm glad you got to learn more about your parents through their correspondence.

When we were packing up my grandmother's house this summer, we came across a box of my grandpa's paintings. One of my early memories of him is sitting at the table watching him paint and having the epiphany that he was an artist. But these paintings--all of Pearl Harbor--showed me what he was thinking of when he painted that I didn't understand or see then. Similarly, I have a letter he wrote to my grandmother that shows his humor and that he was a huge romantic. It's bittersweet that there are all these different sides to people we don't know until they're gone, but it's wonderful that we get to know them after all.

Elissa: I'm so sorry for the loss of your dad. It sounds like he led an extraordinary and brave life. Thanks for sharing a piece of that with us.

Cheryl said...

My family doesn't talk. They don't tell personal stories. I've learned my family history in bits, wresting a few facts and dates (none of which are certain) out of decades of conversation.

I didn't know two of my grandparents at all, and one died before I was old enough to understand that he'd led the most interesting life of all. How Romany was he? Was he a deserter from WWI? Or had he been illegally conscripted into a different conflict? I might never know.

What I wouldn't give for any of them--even my uncle who keeps teasing us with secrets he won't tell until everyone involved is dead--to have written something down. Even if it meant I had to hire a translator to be able to read it.

RosannaM said...

Elissa, I am so sorry for the loss of your father. It sounds like he had an amazing life!

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Powerful and eloquent post today... Thank you Janet.

Memoirs are mostly what I read. I love them. I devour them. My book shelves are full of them.

It's no stretch that my own three titles are memoirs. They never hit NYT best seller status, and I was never invited to be on Oprah (even though she's a horse/animal lover, darn-it) but I'm proud of them. I'm humbled beyond words when people tell me the stories about the sanctuary has changed their lives.

I write about the death of my father in the first book. (Elissa M, My deepest condolences on the loss of your father). My publisher wanted me to take that part out, saying it was too sad. I had included several comical stories about my dad leading up to his death. I was adamant about keeping his final chapter (in life) in the book. I'm glad my publisher finally agreed. I've received messages from dozens and dozens of people saying that chapter was particularly moving. It also became a touchstone for my siblings who were not present when he died.

Not everyone has compelling, earth-shattering experiences to write about, but the gentle real-life stories will always resonate.

RosannaM said...

This was such an interesting post. Both from the inside look at the how agent's deal with the difficulty of saying no to someone's pouring out of their heart and soul, and the subject matter of recording human history.

I kind of think we need all sorts of memoirs, whether they sell or not. I think it is the only way we may actually be able to understand and empathize with someone who is very far out of our circle of life. Although I could see these stories as being smaller than a book length. Not all of us have book length worthy lives, but then some of us may need a series to cover everything!

Speaking of memoirs, I just read one that was fascinating. The Foundling by Paul Joseph Fronczak.

Karen McCoy said...

2Ns, I would totally read that story. So sad to hear about the fire, but I'm glad you can still piece together what you remember.

Elissa M, so sorry to hear about your father's passing. I would love to hear more about him.

I am fortunate that my parents have told me a lot about my family--including my grandfather, who was born in 1897. He never flew, after seeing too many planes crash when man was still trying to figure out how to have wings. I am very lucky that I still have my grandmother's ring from when she married him in 1929 (she was 19, he was 31), engraved with their initials. I posted a picture of it to this blog near last year's election day.

My parents are still going through things in their new house, and have unearthed a bunch of treasures. One of these included a letter this same grandmother sent to me in 1993, for my 13th birthday, describing her experience at "Tucson Meet Yourself" and trying Greek gyros and sweet potato pie. Ending thus: "I think of you often Karen and wish we could be together more often." Now that she's passed on, I wish this too.

My uncle is preserving a lot of these artifacts--including dance cards from my grandmother, in the same handwriting, with the pencils still attached with string. I'm also hoping to keep treasures from the other side of my family too--including a valentine signed, "Guess whom" from my mother's father while he and my grandmother were courting.

It is a different way of connecting, preserving our humanity. That is part of the higher social purpose, as her sharkliness puts it.

Joseph Snoe said...

At the largest Writers Conference I’ve attended (Writers League of Texas) I met four or five women who came to find agents for their memoirs. They had some similar characteristics. Their stories were about growing up with a troubled mother. (Living in cars, doing drugs, hanging out with motorcycle gangs, etc – One started telling me about her book with the point her mother was buried on the bank of Town Lake in Austin about 300 yards from where we sat - murdered by a drug dealer she owed money to).

Second, their stories all seemed on the face to be more interesting than most novels I’d read.

Three, despite their early life struggles, they all were well-educated, and had strong professional careers (all not that surprisingly having to do with psychology in some form or other).

Andrea St. Amand said...

Write it! Write it as Janet recommended, for who knows what social purpose that will inevitably come along.

I wrote a short one for my grandparents, in their words, that covered four years from their first meeting, through WWII, until my grandfather returned home and they started what became the rest of their lives. My purpose was to capture those young, wild years of an early romance, amidst dire uncertainty, before they became known as parents, then grandparents, churchgoers, etc. What emerged was a portrait of two people none of us had previously met.

Most importantly, when my grandparents moved into assisted living at the end of their lives, all of their caretakers and nurses asked to read their memoir. It endeared my grandparents to them in a way no other communication could. They were seen for the fullness of their lives, and those lives were relatable. I never saw that coming when I first embarked on the project.

John Davis Frain said...

First, the post. Then, the comments.

Wow. Cheers to everyone here.

Naturally, I have a question. If this was originally posted somewhere five years ago, do you have data on how well it has been received over this relatively short period of time? Sure has been well received here, and I'll add myself to the throng.

french sojourn said...

I instantly thought of Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, as well. (Loaded onto my trusty Kindle months ago...maybe this post was the push I needed.)

mythical one-eyed peace officer said...

What 2Ns said at the start.

I'd add that in my own avocation of writing memoir essays an additional reason is that in the writing I can gently explore memories and feelings and thereby recall stuff (as far back as the 1950s) previously forgotten.

Regarding letters - until my best friend of half a century died last year we had a twenty year email exchange. Often my long and sometimes ponderous musings and recollections. When I go back once in a while to read a few of those I sent I am often reminded of occurrences and of thoughts already otherwise lost from memory.

BJ Muntain said...

Many archives look for this sort of thing, as custodian of the past, rememberer of all things. Our provincial archives says:

"Records acquired from private donors and preserved by the Provincial Archives include personal records of families and individuals (diaries, correspondence, records of professional activities, farm accounts and reminiscences)..."

So even if something isn't published or self-published, there is a place for them.

For inspirational stories, there is self-publishing, or perhaps a small press with a similar mission to the author. Some charitable organizations might help to sell or market the works, especially if a part of the proceeds for the book goes to them.

Kitty said...

You remember the story you can live with, not the one that happened.

I read that Frank McCourt inspired the memoir craze with Angela's Ashes. Yet some people in Limerick took offense with the book and called McCourt a liar.

McCourt replied: 'I can't get concerned with these things. There are people in Limerick who want to keep these controversies going. I told my own story. I wrote about my situation, my family, my parents, that's what I experienced and what I felt.
'Some of them know what it was like. They choose to take offence. In other words, they're kidding themselves.'

Joseph Snoe said...

I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but friends and acquaintances who are readers but not writers keep encouraging me to write a memoir or a family biography, usually with conclusions like, “That’s the story you were meant to write” or “People would want to read that” or “It’d be interesting.”

The most intriguing being about my mother. She was a young girl at the beginning of World War II and lived in the part of Italy-Yugoslavia where the rebels engaged in violent battles with the Italian Army. The rebels killed my mother’s sister for flirting with an Italian soldier, and my mother had to hide so they wouldn’t kill her too. When my mother was in the fifth grade, her village was burned to the ground and she and her parents were taken as forced laborers to a Bavarian farm in Germany. They had to stand naked in line with hundreds of other going through sheep dip on their way to Germany. She’s told me of killing and eating a chicken right there in the field because she was so hungry. And hating the mean woman whose husband owned the farm. And watching that woman being killed during by a bomb dropped during an American bombing run over their town.

I bought a recording device a few years ago to record my mother’s story. She was then in intermediate memory loss stage but could recall her childhood vividly. I asked people visit her to get her to tell her story. Alas, the device disappeared within a week.

I may use part of my mother’s story in a novel somewhere down the line, but I’d never be able to write a good memoir or biography about it.

Dan Phalen said...

Some perspective. I live in a community for active seniors. We have a monthly newsletter and I'm one of four writers who produce a one-page bio called Know Your Neighbor. On every setup call I get the response "my life isn't interesting". Let me tell you, when it finally comes to the "one-hour" interview, invariably we're at it for two.

As I condense the salient experiences of an octogenarian couple onto a single page, I'm constantly frustrated by that limitation. What comes out from these intelligent, well-spoken, lively people are vivid vignettes of the history they've lived. I wish I could include more, but space is limited.

My last interview, the 82 yo gentleman was part of the rocket age, was in the NASA command center when Columbia blew up. Things like that could be embellished with fascination first-person details.

I'm sitting on a gold mine with a toothpick and a spoon.

Joseph Snoe said...

A highly recommended (by me) well-written, honest, memoir that records and brings into focus a critical time in American history is “The Newspaper Boy: Coming of Age in Birmingham, AL, During the Civil Rights Era.”

Excerpts from the Kirkus review:

A white Southerner describes his teenage journey to racial tolerance in this debut coming-of-age autobiography.

Attorney Isom grew up and attended college during the 1950s and ’60s in Birmingham, Alabama. . . . That backdrop makes Isom’s personal story even more remarkable. As a teenager, he was fired up by the racist views of his society, particularly those of famous segregationist and Klansman Asa Carter. However, he was slowly swayed the opposite way by the kindness and “question everything” philosophy of the Millers, two Yankee transplants on his paper route.

A touching, heartfelt, and amusing book that provides a wonderful personal perspective on a period of historical and cultural change.

Craig F said...

In memoirs, even more than in commercial fiction, it is all about the writing. I have put down many more memoirs than I have read for just that reason. Too many try to set a mood by being overly descriptive.

Even if a memoir is not commercially viable, there is a big market for many of them. There are support groups of every kind out there. If you can write a memoir that is cathartic to any of those groups you might find a home.

Finding such a home might be as profitable to the health of the writer's soul as it is to their wallet.

kathy joyce said...

I've often thought it would be a fun collaboration, to create historical fiction from the stories of someone who was there. It may be like making movies from novels. The end result isn't exactly what the author wrote, but the underlying story is there, and entertaining.

Lucy Crowe said...

Kudos to those who can write memoirs! I find that putting memories to words cuts too close to the bone - even though I have essentially lived a beautiful life. Funny thing - a few days ago I woke from a dream in which an entire Mac Davis album from my childhood had played all night long. I had completely forgotten these songs, and when I googled the album I saw that its release date was in 1974. I would have been 9! I spent that day remembering what it was like to be a child in the seventies - party lines and garden tomatoes, the green slant of light in a never-ending summer. But how to share? What words to capture the essence? I couldn't do it. Ditto on my first marriage, my children. Double ditto on the house fires I have seen in my career, the dying girl in the mangled car who held my hand and broke my heart forever. I'm a writer; I use my words. But I find I don't have the right tools in the box for this sort of thing. That said - the few times I have broken through and written a truly personal blog, the response has been far and above what I normally get. I think people love to connect. In this age of technology *sigh* they like to see the wizard behind the curtain, don't they? And was "To Kill a Mockingbird" a memoir of sorts? Because I have read a trillion other books and never loved one quite as much as I do that one.

Lennon Faris said...

This is why we love you Janet! You are always trying to figure out how to make a human know s/he matters.

2Ns - that is bittersweet. People have so many layers. It is different when it's your mom, but I felt the same way about my grandfather. He was always very strict with us grandkids, always chastising us for not leaning over the table, or talking too loudly, etc. etc. He had a super gruff voice and SEVERE eyebrows. We used to avoid him in the house (like, sneak around and whisper) when we'd visit Grandma & Grandpa. It wasn't till I was older that I started catching his dry sense of humor. Then after he passed (when I was 14), I learned so many things about him that I never knew. Now I play the accordion and ride the unicycle and my sister flies a plane like him. I feel like if he had lived a few more years, we would have had a kindred spirit.

Dan - "I'm sitting on a gold mine with a toothpick and a spoon." Well said. My favorite people think this of every person they meet. I always try to think more like them!

Elissa, I am sorry to hear that. He does sound incredible.

Claire Bobrow said...

Wonderful post and comments today. Thank you for sharing, everyone. The stacks and stacks of letters and postcards written by family members that I've kept are my treasured possessions.

Andrea St. Amand: brilliant idea to give caregivers the memoirs of those under their care.
Dan Phalen: also brilliant to do the bios for your community newsletter. What a gift for people to learn about their neighbors.

Elissa: So sorry to hear about the passing of your dad.

Steve Stubbs said...

It has been awhile since I read about this, so I don't know if I have the terminology right, but what you are talking about is what historians call the Little Story.

If someone who is of no significance whatsoever is born to money (I think you know whom I am referring to), said individual's story is the Great Story. People who are born to no money live the Little Story.

Only the Great Story gets recorded. Thus we have fair records of what it was like to be an English aristocrat in the eighteenth century and have some peasants strung up because he got up on the wrong side of the bed one day. We can only guess what it was like to live with someone's boot on your neck and have the boot replaced with a rope when you were only twenty.

The Little Story needs to be told. As a history buff I can understand why the Duke of Wellington wanted to shoot at Napoleon's men and thereby preserve England's system of class privilege. I do not understand why the duke's soldiers shot at the French and not at the duke himself.

Methinks they aimed their guns in the wrong direction.

Claire AB. said...

Bravo, Janet, for writing this post and sending such a caring response to those writing non-commercial memoirs. I want to echo those who've already said it: You make us feel like our work matters, and we are so grateful!

Elissa M said...

To all who wrote their condolences (or even just thought them): Thank you. I wasn't looking for acknowledgement, but you're all too kind to let my family's loss slide under the radar. My father is now with my mother, where he's wanted to be ever since she passed 6 1/2 years ago. The story of how they met was one of his favorites (blind date with a coworker's sister).

Still, I want to re-emphasize the point I was making: it's up to us writers to make sure people's stories aren't lost. Dan Phalen, what you're doing for those seniors is wonderful.

Mary said...

One sentence (or two) that makes my blood run cold is "Everyone tells me I should write a book," followed by: "Can you help me write it?" Sadly, I have had to fend off a couple of people because I know how difficult it is for memoir to sell. I feel very fortunate that my first, and now I think my second, are going to be published. It was never a question of making money, just the compulsion to write it all down. I love that quote about remembering things you can live with. Can certainly relate.

BJ Muntain said...

Elissa: I'm so sorry about your father. (((hugs)))

My grandmother used to tell me about growing up poor. I enjoyed our talks, and tried to remember them, but my memory has been a sieve for a couple decades now, and things are now lost. She would talk about wearing her brothers' shoes, about how her step-father didn't want her around because she was a girl - the boys were okay because they could help around the farm.

She never talked about her own father, except that he died when she was very young.

It wasn't until my dad's younger brother died that my grandmother's step-sister spoke up to say that 'Anne's father was hanged for murder.' My grandmother was mortified, but it opened up a whole new view into my grandmother's family's past. I'm still learning more about this event, even 21 years after Grandma left us.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Just got home from the hospital, maternity, my oldest daughter had a little boy today, a second child. All fine, actually all grand. Birth, a true miracle.

I wasn't going to comment again but after being away all day and now jumping back on I have to say...

Look at what we have written today !
Have you read the comments. We are amazing people, amazing writers, 'write' up there with the best.
I love this bunch, truly I do.

LynnRodz said...

Your post today, Janet, is one of the reasons why I love you.

This reminds me of "Everybody Has A Story" with Steve Hartman. It's true, each one of us has a story and even if some have led more exciting lives than others, it doesn't mean one life is more important than the other. Back in the the 1990s here in Paris I was working on Steven Spielberg's the Shoah Project, I had the privilege to tape the lives of people who had survived the concentration camps. Each story was a testament of the human spirit to survive. Believe me when I say I felt blessed to not only hear their stories, but to record them for future generations.

My ex's uncle was part of the French Resistance and was captured when he was 19. He was taken to Auschwitz where he later died. After the war, my ex's mother and grandmother went to Poland to find out what they could and found a photo of him. More importantly (I don't remember how, this was over 30 years ago) they had many of his writings. Letters and poems he wrote talking about the evil and despair of life in the camp, but he also wrote about good and beauty and his hope for the future if he would be lucky enough to survive. Unfortunately, he did not.

Susan, all you have to do to get first hand information about how life was in France during WWII is have Sunday lunch with several generations present and the conversation will inevitably turn to that period. When I first arrived in Paris I was amazed how the French still talked about WWII like it had happened yesterday, 46 years later it hasn't changed.

On a different note, there are still days (not many) when my mum remembers things from her past that we didn't know about. Little golden nuggets of her life, and life with my dad, that would've otherwise have been hidden/lost to us forever. I cherish them.

Elissa, my condolences about your father.

Carolynn, congratulations on your new grandson.

(The cycle of life. Sorry, Janet, for going way over the 100 words.)

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Circling back in to just simply say... LOVE. All of this. Everything all of you wrote. And the stories you've shared.

AJ Blythe said...

Ditto what everyone said about your philosophy on this, Janet. Although I am curious what the difference (if there is one) is between a memoir and an autobiography?

But the thing that has my rodent wheel racing is this:

>>no I can't sell cozy mysteries without a craft theme<<

Janet, was this a serious comment? Do they have to have a craft (or I assume cooking) theme? Mine has a theme/hook, but not crafty (not this series, nor the next, nor the one after that). I do have recipes (of food eaten in the book) to be included, but they don't relate to the theme.

AJ Blythe said...

I think everyone must have stories like the ones shared here. Another wonderful morning of reading.

My Nana loved poetry, but what we didn't know until after she had gone was that she had composed poetry herself. We found just a couple of poems with a letter she'd obviously drafted to submit her book of poems for publication (complete with pen name). We don't know if she ever did submit those poems, or what happened to the rest of them, but the few poems we do have are now a treasured family possession.

Elissa, I'm sorry to hear of your loss (((hugs)))

2Ns, congratulations on your newest grandbaby.

roadkills-r-us said...

Janet, you are one of my favorite people I have never met. You blow me away over and over again.
One of my uncles wrote his memoir. My aunt typed it. She played editor, beta reader, context adder, and more. And he rewrote and she retyped. The finished product is close to a ream of paper, but it's double spaced and includes lots of photos (one sided, IIRC).
I learned more family history from that than I had heard most of my life- not counting all I learned just about Uncle G.A., Aunt Marjorie, and their children. I also got insights not only into the time, but into West Palm beach, the insurance industry, and polio.
We haven't been able to convince our dad to do this, but I am encouraging my siblings to share the stories we've all heard or lived in writing. Among other things, we have pieced together (with a bit of help from a stranger's memoir my daughter found!) things about the Korean war that would curl your hair. I'm seriously amaze that so many who survived that trusted our government at all.
Write. It. Down. Get others involved. Please.

Karen McCoy said...

Love to you too, 2Ns! Congrats on the new addition.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

For anyone who is interested.

My grandfather's WWI journal is now online at the Museums on the Green in Falmouth MA. I need to get them some of the photos from the scrapbook I found.

K.L. Murphy said...

Thank you for this post. Many years ago, I wrote a freelance article about a woman who provided that service for people. While it certainly isn't the same as writing your own memoir, I was struck by how important it was to record these personal histories. Life is changing so rapidly that it's easy to forget the past. In addition to being a recorded history, the writing of a memoir can be cathartic. All the best to those who have a story to tell.

Bette M. Guy said...

This is a great blog Jane and I am interested in the discussion about non commercial memoirs. Like David Carr's comments, my latest manuscript, Vaguely Indecent, is a clear eyed report of what happened in one family over 50 years ago. The external journey is into the social history of other times and places while the inner journey seeks out reconciliation and forgiveness of self. There is therefore a two fold interest; social history and the philosophical debate of what is right and what is wrong. I do hope I find a publisher who sees it as sufficiently commercial to publish.
Bette Guy

Jean Gill said...

Thank you for such an honest analysis of the publisher attitude to memoir and such a positive view of the future.

Mike said...

Interesting approach, and some fascinating comments. I'm starting to delve into the personal historian world - a friend of a friend was a convicted bank robber, fell in love and went straight, etc. And wants to tell his story. In his case there will definitely be some exciting bits, and maybe even commercial potential. But for many people, their life just was, with little ups and downs. As you say, the importance is in helping them document what life was like when they grew up.
My mother had documented the first few decades of her life - when in her 80's so a little fuzzy in places- but we still have her tapes and notes from then. You've reminded me that I need to gather this all up so that her family and friends can add to the story, while we're all still here.