Monday, July 30, 2012

Further info on Non Commercial Memoir

Dear Janet Reid,

I've been helping ordinary people tell their life story now for 22 years, and discovered some time ago that I was not alone. Think of the Association of Personal Historians when you get some of these noncelebrity memoir queries -- in a sense, personal historians are ghostwriters or collaborators for hire, but unlike collaborators hired to write memoirs published by traditional publishers, personal historians do the whole package, from interviewing (or teaching a life writing course, or editing a manuscript) to production of a book, or an oral history (and transcript--for those who suspect a digital recording might not be easily accessible 50 years from now), or a video.  For an example of the latter, look at Jim Walsh's tribute to his father:

I've provided a link to some resources for people who want to tell their story here:

Here are more videos:

You can also find resources here:
Association of Personal Historians
(and there is a conference in mid-October in St.. Louis, this year -- it's a moveable feast)
(I am a past president of the organization, by the way.)

With clients who can afford the Full Monty, I've overseen production of some books that are far nicer (in production quality) than any I've seen from traditional publishers.  But it's the stories and the words themselves, and the photos, and the capturing of moving images and sound, however raw or polished, that count with these personal histories.  And the process alone is invaluable.  Here's a story I wrote  for the Journal of Geriatric Care Management:
The Beneficial Effects of Life Story and Legacy Activities

I was at the first two conferences of Biographers International (in Boston and DC) but skipped the one in Los Angeles. In my mind, doing personal histories for private clients is one way authors who are living on lower-than-ever advances can supplement their income.  That's why I started doing it, and once I started I did not turn back (although I also do organizational histories).

I also teach life writing workshops at the Writer's Center in Bethesda.  Similar workshops are taught all around the country (and are sometimes sponsored by churches and other community centers).  This is no way to make a living but it is one of the most satisfying things I do, and the people who take the courses really get a lot more done, because they have a ready-made audience and a weekly deadline.  They bond, they become friends, and they start writing about things they have not thought about (or talked with their own family about) for years.  At the moment I am putting some of the products from these workshops to bed as books. This kind of thing is happening all around the country.  It is hot!


Anonymous said...

That sounds like an interesting field that the writer is in, but I'm not sure whether s/he's selling a memoir-writing service to writers, or urging writers to consider making a living by writing others' memoirs?

In asking you to "Think of the Association of Personal Historians when you get some of these noncelebrity memoir queries," is the writer asking you for pay-to-play referrals, or inviting writers to join the organization? I'm a little confused.

It's not like there's no market for memoirs of non-celebrities. Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and the Delaney sisters' Having Our Say are two bestsellers that spring to mind immediately, but there have been tons of other non-celebrity memoirs that have done well. It's all in the writing, really.

rareflorida said...

Query Odditsy, a play on Odyssey because a query is a quest.

NotaWarriorPrincess said...

"It's all in the writing" is a part of Janet's original point in her guest post. "Angela's Ashes" is beautiful, but it's literary memoir, which is also a far cry from the types of memoir Janet was wincing at having to turn down. "Literary" may start out as a small market, but it *is* *a* market; whereas "how cool/traumatic my adolescence was" is not so much.

Anonymous said...

NAWP-- Ah, I see. I didn't read the original post. So I was pretty startled to see what seemed to me essentially a pitch from a ghost-writer/pay-to-play publisher.

I can never tell what's "literary". Being written by a man seems to be a large part of it, but nah, that can't be it. I used the celebrity/non-celebrity distinction since it was the one the ghost-writer offered. People will read about the lives of ordinary people whether they're literary or not, if they're interesting enough.

Pat McNees ( said...

Dear alaskaravenclaw:
I was responding to Janet Reid's guest post on Bibliobuffet:

"Ghostwriter" was a misleading (because overgeneral) term for what a personal historian does, because that can range anywhere from editing a manuscript to crafting one from interviews--basically, it's helping someone get their life story told. The Association of Personal Historians is an organization for people who like helping others tell their life story, helping them get together to discuss the craft and the business, to compare notes on service providers (designers, printers, binders, etc.) and on equipment (recorders, scanners, etc.), and generally to schmooze about a field they are typically drawn to because they love the process of eliciting stories from other people. Often it starts when they find enormous satisfaction in researching personal or family stories -- or when someone dies without having told their story, and they swear they won't let that happen again.

One difference between personal histories and bestselling memoirs published the traditional way is that the personal historian is both editor/writer and publisher--often arranging for a private printing on a very small scale, but sometimes in large printings. It is an organization of great listeners!

Variations are endless. Some of my favorite projects are tributes for special occasions--sometimes print, sometimes video, but--for example -- one could publish a special website with just audio clips about a specific person, event, or organization.

Fifteen years ago two different organizations emerged with a similar orientation, the Association of Personal Historians and the International Institute for Reminiscence and Life Review (which has a more academic orientation).