Saturday, November 28, 2015

More on memoir

Memoir queries can break your heart.

"My husband died. I had five kids to feed. I figured out how to do it. I made it. I want to help other people in this situation. Here's my memoir."

"My child died of cancer. I want to make sure other families learn from our ordeal. Here's my memoir."

"My child died by suicide. I thought I would die too. I didn't. I want to help other parents. This is my memoir of how I made it."

I try to answer these queries personally. The amount of pain quivering in that electronic font isn't an optical illusion. Or maybe it is the tears in my own eyes, I'm not sure.

But the answer to these queries is almost universally no.

And the why is cruel: memoir, even memoir trying to help other people in similar situations, must have a significance for readers who are not experiencing what the writer did. There must be something more to the memoir. Something that makes it universal.

Without that, it's almost impossible to pitch this for general trade publishing.

The question to ask is "what does this story have to offer people who are NOT in my situation."

If you're finding a cold shoulder while querying memoir, this might be the problem.

It will help to get some objective opinions. It's hard to do this at a writing conference. If you sit down across from me and tell me this is a memoir of your child's death, my first response is not to say "well, what's in it for me?" even though that's what I need to know. My first response is to ask your child's name, how old s/he was, and to tell me more about her.

Thus, you'll need to find a place where you have more time. Time for people to get past the first shock of tragedy. A good writing class on memoir will help you. An independent editor will be of use to you.

Telling a larger story through the lens of your own individual story is what you need.

And if you can't find a larger story, there's a lot to be said for making the book available on your own. Even if you comfort just a few people, that's a good thing coming from a very sad event.


Pam Powell said...

There are times, Janet Reid, when I just want to give you a hug of appreciation. This is one of those times. Thank you for your compassion. Hug.

Just Jan said...

I second what Poof says. I am not writing memoir, but this is a beautifully worded post for those who are. Happy Saturday!

Lisa Bodenheim said...

There are so many worthy ways (IknowIknow, a book is THE best) to share wisdom gained from sad or tragic situations. In my large extended family, we've seen our small share. One cousin and his wife, after their son's death when he crashed his car, now host an annual fundraiser to collect money for a scholarship fund for graduating high school students. Bittersweet each year for them. My parents, after my brother's death from cancer 30+ years ago, donated funds in his memory, and whenever a child dies--in our extended family or in our small community--they are there to offer comfort and a steadfast compassion.

And you're compassion, Janet, might be all some of these people need to help them either focus or redirect to a project that will better fit what they can do. Sometimes we just need an ear to hear us beyond our own small community.

Telling a larger Perhaps that's why so many of us become fiction writers rather than memoir writers?

Sherry Howard said...

It's your compassion (and humor) that keep this blog alive.

Unknown said...

It is very difficult to hold onto compassion in a world of business. Thanks for doing so, Janet.

Susan Bonifant said...

"And if you can't find a larger story...if you comfort just a few people, that's a good thing coming from a very sad event."

Grief is a python that will kill you so slowly you don't know you're dying. A writer who is sharing heartbreak may not know they are really just trying to survive.

When my younger brother died, I wrote a piece to vent the grief. It was read at his service, shared a ton, and I began to hear from a community of souls who felt I'd put their own feelings into words. I hadn't been looking for them, but they lightened my load as they claimed I'd lightened theirs.

As Janet Reid suggests, and pointedly enough to fill my own eyes, there are ways to churn crushing loss into public connection that will heal both the writer and others. I would gently suggest a writer identify first and foremost if they are writing a story to sell, or still trying to survive that python.

Donnaeve said...

Memoirs have always fascinated me exactly for the reason you mention, i.e. really, what IS the "something more" below the overall event/s and the rest of the story which surrounds it?

This is invaluable advice to anyone writing one. It's clear direction on what to consider, what might help differentiate their story from all the rest.

Like others have said, it's a compassionate take on what works, what doesn't and why.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

We are so fortunate here to find such a brilliant agent with such compassion and humor. I have always found literature and all art to be a great tool for expressing the human experience, all its joy, pain, struggle, complexity, and beauty. Writing, like any art, should not be ventured into for purely money's sake. Even if a story does not sell, it is worth the rendering of it.

Memoir I could never do, but I find all the experiences in my life enhance my fiction. In all great works of fiction, there lies undeniable truth whether it be the futility of Ahab's obsession with his whale, or the Faustian delimma of a small hobbit in Lord of the Rings. I suppose it might be more challenging to relay such universal themes confined to the borders of reality.

Still, it seems a healing thing to write about such experiences in some form. Grief, is after all, a common bond for humans and a price for our mortality.

DLM said...

Oh, Susan - "Grief is a python that will kill you so slowly you don't know you're dying. A writer who is sharing heartbreak may not know they are really just trying to survive." - perfectly expressed.

I have heard so many agents explaining heartbrokenly how hard memoir is to sell, but this quantifies it so clearly and without prejudice.

Thank you again, Janet.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

I agree, QOTKU is the kindest shark.

I quit writing memoirs because I couldn't get past the "so what?" of my experience. I'm happy I wrote them. It felt good to write them. When I thought of publishing those stories, I imagined myself in a party. How would people talk to me? Did I really want to share my scandals with the world? No.

Missing by Lindsay Harrison sticks in my mind because her voice is unforgettable. I couldn't finish it because it was very tragic.

Anonymous said...

Susan hit it spot on.

I remember quite well the grief when my daughter Mirinda died. I also remember the fury when the pastor said at the funeral in days to come I would be able to truly say, "I know how you feel" and give comfort to other grieving mothers. I was so livid I got up to attack him. I wanted to choke him to death for laying that curse on me. Don had to pull me back down. How could I bear to be around anyone who hurt as badly as I did?

And that's exactly what happened. I would go in places I had no reason to go and I would know. That woman has lost a baby. We'd hold each other and cry and then we'd talk. I'd tell her, "No, it never stops hurting, but it does get better and you will survive."

I've had several people tell me I should write a memoir. No, I shouldn't. I have nothing of great interest to say.

But, like all writers, my life is grist for the mill. In the opening scene where Kaelyn is grieving over her dead uncle, she notices a teardrop clinging to a stalk of grass and in the tear a rainbow. That scene, those emotions come from one of my visits to Mirinda's grave.

Later in the book she's haunted by horrific nightmares and is going insane. She's terrified to sleep because the nightmares will return and finally realizes suicide is the only way out. That also is from life.

Authors write memoirs with every book. Our souls, emotions, and past experiences go into each work whether we try to do so or not.

Susan said...

There's a lot I've wanted to say these past two days. A lot I've wanted to share as we talk about age and mortality and pain and how writing can heal us, offer us hope. But words keep failing me because I want to say so much, and I know it won't be enough.

Pain is universal, and we're all wandering around, trying to find a place to put it. Writing becomes that sacred space where we can grieve for the past, even imagine a different, better future, and put down that weight for a little while. For most of us, we pour our pain into our words--to say what couldn't be said or what needs to be said--if only for ourselves, if only to find some relief and help us feel like we can make it through the next minute or hour or day.

We write for ourselves, but I think we share those words because we desperately want to know we're not alone in our suffering, even though at times like these, we feel all alone. We want someone to say, "hey, I've been there, too. What you're feeling? It passes. It gets better." We share because we want to be that hope for someone else.

Please keep sharing your stories.

Colin Smith said...

I hope people pay attention to Janet's last paragraph. Especially those who think agents have disdain for self-publishing. Publishing isn't a charity. People need to make money to feed their families and pay the bills, so unless a book is broadly marketable, even small indie publishers have to make tough choices. But your experience is valuable, even if it isn't broadly marketable, and this is where self-publishing comes in.

As a first-generation immigrant to the US, I've often wondered if I should tell my story in some form for future generations. Unless I end up a wildly successful writer, no-one but my family would care to know about my childhood, how I met my wife, how I came to the US, etc. One of the reasons I started my blog was as a place I could share stories from my childhood--somewhat memoir-ish. Maybe one day I'll self-pub a proper memoir? I don't know.

One last point--when I was researching my Teenage Alien in Victorian London novel, I looked particularly for things written in late Victorian London that would give me a flavor of what daily life was like. Doing that kind of research really gives you an appreciation for the value of memoir. It also makes me wonder if maybe those stories that aren't broadly marketable today may actually increase in value years down the road. People may not be interested in your story of struggle and survival today, but in 100 years, historians and researchers might enjoy reading how people in the early 21st century dealt with personal tragedies and hardships.

BJ Muntain said...

As Janet so kindly said, sometimes a memoir to help others can best be self-published, but it may also be useful to check local small publishers. Around here, anyway, the small publishers prefer local books that have a story that the local people can relate to.

A number of people around here who have faced losses and hard lives often speak at fundraising events or even workshops put on by local charities (I used to work for a local division of a national charity. I've seen and heard these wonderful stories.) I know one charity that has a program where a volunteer who has gone through a terrible situation has been paired with someone going through a similar situation, to support them and offer practical advice. There are so many ways to use one's experience to help others.

I suppose it might come down to: how do you want to help others? If simply to support them, I don't know if a memoir is as supportive as other, more personal ways.

Is it to guide the reader through something that may be confusing, like the medical system or cancer treatment? If so, then perhaps the story isn't so much a memoir as non-fiction informed by personal experience. In which case it's queried differently, written differently, and will require more research with expert sources to back up the author's experience.

Perhaps a memoir might be more successful if it tells of a journey, from one place to another. It may be from the depths of despair to the brightness of hope. It may be more physical, from a catastrophic change to a new - maybe better, maybe just different - normal. People read stories like this in fiction, so a true story that reads like a hero's journey might be more likely to succeed.

The sad fact is that terrible illnesses, accidents, and losses happen every day. I think a memoirist who has a story like this to tell needs to really consider what makes their story different from the others. Just like with any other book, fiction or non-fiction. Why would someone buy your book instead of someone else's?

(Sometimes that thing that makes your memoir unique is voice. Julie, if you do write your memoir, it's your voice that will drive it and make people buy it.)

Anonymous said...


I try not to write much about depressing subjects because it brings me and people who read what I'm writing down. Some people think it's cathartic. It can be to a point, but after a while it's like bleeding someone who's had their throat cut to heal them.

I prefer to dwell on the happier times. All of my books have an oddball sense of humor to them. I want people to laugh out loud when they're reading my work.

"Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke."--Joss Whedon That's my mantra. I can do horrible things to my characters, but then I need to give the readers a break.

At Surrey, I had a blue pencil with C.C. Humphreys. I hesitated since THE RAIN CROW is still rough draft, but decided to use an excerpt from that since he's so good with battle scenes. It's a pretty grim scene in the aftermath of the first battle of Manassas. The creek is so bloody his exhausted horse refuses to drink. Feral hogs have already started feasting on the dead and wounded. Baron, the POV character, thinks about stopping to rest, but is afraid the hogs will eat him. He thinks, "Here lies Baron Patrick Callahan. Survived the war, but not the boar."

Thus ends the chapter.

Chris went through the excerpt noting the horror and grimness of the battle scene, then broke out laughing when he read that line. "That's the perfect way to end a scene like this."

I don't want my readers sunk in funk.

Dena Pawling said...

My daughter is currently talking with her oldest brother on Facetime on my iPhone. He's giving her a tour of his new barracks, basically a concrete bunker, which does NOT make his mother happy. She's giving him a tour of what our house currently looks like. Despite much effort, our dog has no concept of “person on an iPhone screen”, much to my son's disappointment. The flag he stuck in the back of a bookcase is still there, much to his delight. He tells my #3 son “wow, you look like Jack Black”, which is mostly true and makes both of them laugh.

These are the highlights of my current life.

I have triumphs and tragedies in my past life, but they seem insignificant in comparison to those examples given by Janet. I'm sure no one would give their hard-earned money to read about the legally blind girl who got coke-bottle glasses at age 8 and whose first words upon going outside that day were “Mom! The trees really do have leaves!”

I am NOT Jenny Lawson.

If I ever wrote my memoir, the “what's in it for me” would be an easy question. You could read it at bedtime and it would put you to sleep faster.

Like Julie, I include snippets in my WIPs, in the hope that they would then become something worth reading.

A.J. Cattapan said...

And this is why my memoir is currently sitting with beta readers. They already know the basics of my outrageously-funny-but-embarrassingly-true midlife crises in Italy. The question is if it has any broader appeal so that I can make a decision about seeking traditional publishing or self-publishing or just forgetting it and burying my head in the sand until the memories fade.

This is also why my cousin ended up self-publishing her cancer-survivor memoir. It didn't quite have a broad enough appeal to catch the attention of a traditional press, so she's self-published it. Because she also sells handmade scarves to raise money for cancer research, she is able to sell her memoir and her scarves to her target audience. During her many craft fairs, she meets up with lots of cancer survivors who are interested in how she endured "childhood leukemia" and a stroke as a young mother of three children. So while she may not be raking in the dough, she is reaching her audience and her story is having an impact.

CynthiaMc said...

Sometimes I wonder if there's a place for me in the world the way it is now. I prefer to lift up rather than tear down, to laugh rather than cry, to make something happen rather than play victim. So much of what's out there is angry, depressing, depraved, violent. That's not me.

My style these days is "Yes, the world sometimes sucks but here's what's good about it, too."

Hope there's a market for that.

Donnaeve said...

I've been reading the comments and thinking, but there are memoirs that aren't all about death, depression, alcoholism, suicide, homocide, and even those must end on a positive note I would think, right?

I'll bring up SLACKJAW again by Jim Knipfel. He could have made that into a really sad story. (about going blind from eye disease) and instead, it's this self-deprecating story written with humor about how he coped - living in NYC no less. There's something more there for sure.

So, although QOTKU gave tragic examples, most memoirs I've read have good mixed into the bad to balance out the story. I think if they all ended on a tragic note, memoirs wouldn't work for most people, not publishing, not the readers, not the people writing them.

Probably like Julie W said about ending a horrific scene with some humor.

Susan said...

Julie: I agree. Which is why I can't read Cormac McCarthy, for example, and choose not to read or watch anything in the horror genre. There is a lot of talent and beautiful writing there, stories that absolutely have their place and people who enjoy them, but it affects me too much--especially when life already affects me too much.

I think everyone has their reason for writing--for fun, for escape, as catharsis, to make sense of life. I think for most of us, it's some combination of all of the above, particularly with fiction. For me, it's why I write what I do.

My grandmother lived with us all my life, but I never knew her when she was healthy. I wish I had--she was a remarkable, gentle, and independent woman who loved us fiercely. She moved into a nursing home when I was twelve, already in the throes of Alzheimer's. A lot of my memories are around finding sandwiches in her dresser when she wouldn't eat, reminding her that her sisters and mother were gone, and that my mom was her daughter, not me. Ten years after she died, I wrote Gold in the Days of Summer. Writing was the only way I knew to deal with that pain, to honor who she was, and try to understand what she herself was going through. Annie's 12 in the book--the same age I was. She's also a smart-alec. That innocence and humor helped the book to "breathe," and me, when I was writing it.

A few years ago, I became seriously ill. All of the doctors I saw brushed me off, said that it was all in my head. All the while, I was declining quickly--my heart was failing, I couldn't walk or talk, and I have permanent nerve damage. But I kept looking for answers because I don't know how to give up. It was doctors who failed me and patient stories so similar to my own that saved me, that kept us pursuing a diagnosis until I found my doctor. If it weren't for them or him, I wouldn't have made it through the summer. I spent three years in treatment that makes you worse before you get better, sometimes wishing for the alternative. Writing The Last Letter helped me put that pain somewhere, but I couldn't make it a memoir. Even now, I'm still too close to it. So I wrapped it up in fiction, creating that separation for self-preservation while offering the truth of my experiences in the hope that it can help others, the way others helped me. My story isn't over, but at least, for Lia, I could offer her an ending full of promise.

I think that every fiction writer wraps pieces of their own truth and experiences in their stories. It's what makes them powerful and real. Personally, writing about the hard stuff is how I communicate and relate to others--by sharing those emotions that sometimes seem too heavy, that make you feel too alone. But I always try to pepper my own writing with humor, however dry, and the positive, the beautiful, because that's who I am and how I see the world, and it's what writing does for me. It heals. Even in my darkest moments, I've been able to write my way to hope. That's all I think I could ever ask of my writing--to make people feel.

Panda in Chief said...

Thanks, everyone for your words on these issues of mortality and loss. I am glad you all are here.

Pam Powell said...

I always knew that at some point I would write about my childhood. Around the year 2000, I did just that, writing a one-act, one-woman play about anger and resentment that was healed in a two- or three-week period of time. The play was produced in March 2001 at a play festival in NYC.

I began to think about having the play produced elsewhere when 9-11 happened. Although the word "forgiveness" is never used in the play, that was essentially what the healing was - forgiveness of others, forgiveness of myself. I grieved for New York. Post-9-11 was not a time to market a play about forgiveness. I put the play away on the shelf. It's still there, but the healing is still there, too.

Dena Pawling said...

CynthiaMc - I'm with you. My stuff is more light-hearted, and today's publishing market seems so dark, angsty, edgy. I even have one personalized agent rejection that was nice, and honest, telling me her stuff tended more on the darker side. I appreciated that bit of reality. But it makes me wonder, is my stuff marketable today? Or do I need to let it sit until things shift?

CynthiaMc said...

Dena - maybe we'll be the ones who shift things. Eventually darkness gets old and people want to turn on the light.

Anonymous said...


There is some demand for dark and angsty, but a lot of agents also say they don't want to be depressed. Criminy, life can be depressing enough without watching or reading more of it for entertainment.

A large part of the draw of Firefly was the humor. Look at Janet Evanovich.

In the end it comes down to a compelling story. Always. Frankly, I think it's harder to make someone laugh than feel sad. Any dead weight can tug a heart down, but it takes magic to make it soar.

Amy Schaefer said...

I would hope that, for many writers of memoir, catharsis comes mainly through the writing - not the publishing - of their experiences. It isn't easy to review the events of your life and to tease out the ones that make a narrative. None of us live in a novel; we don't get the control over our real-life experiences that we do over fictional ones.

Publishing is a business. Your life and experiences have their own significance. The fact that there is very little overlap on that Venn diagram is no judgement on you. If you need to share your story, share it the best way you can. And don't be discouraged.

nightsmusic said...

No words, Janet, other than thank you for this.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I have read all your comments tonight.

We write memoir because it allows us to SEE that which feeds or eats our soul. The words give shape to our losses and a visual to our pain. There is a permanence to writing memoir because of what it emotionally takes to complete the process.

Even though every one of my columns is another tiny memoir about me, I must touch a universal nerve or it fails. I have trained myself to always find and communicate the general theme which readers can connect to. The columns which receive the most mail always, and I mean always, are the ones which allow the reader to dip into their own well. It's about me and yet it never is. It's always about them.

Janet, amen to you.

Craig F said...

Ah, memoirs. I have started to read so many and finished so few. Those I finished were people who had the ability to laugh at themselves and make others laugh too. It is a much harder trick to pull off than it is to visualize.

I have never considered writing a memoir. I have a lot of the fine points down. I raced Trials bikes before my body began its betrayal. Then I went into the environmental business. I had to trace the fines and silts down the Alafia River when a commercial damn broke. Got stuck up to my waist in a channel no one told me about. I mustered the energy to get out after the the tide almost drowned me.

I went to sample a monitor well during the last El Nino. I remembered that the well was on the highest ground within fifteen acres. Didn't realize that every rattlesnake in those fifteen acres also knew where the high ground is.

Was at least able to tell my son I loved him as the last thing he heard from me before I lost him.

Maybe next week I will do something that matters to book readers and can contemplate a memoir. I am not sure I would be able to notice such a thing where most of the world can't notice much beyond their social network.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading a lot of memoirs as research for RAIN CROW and COWGIRLS WANTED. I'll read stacks more before I'm done. Some are fascinating and read better than most novels. Others are so dry I have to force myself to finish them. If not for cross-checking facts and dates of events, I wouldn't be able to read them.

Interesting memoirs are not easy to write and yet everyone seems to have one. A team roper friend of mine used to say, "Team roping is like sex. It's a lot of fun to do, but not so much fun to watch." That may be like our lives at times, it's a lot more interesting when you're doing it.

InkStainedWench said...

Colin and Julie M. W., interesting points about memoir as historical record and research material. It doesn't have to be commercially viable to have value.

My mother, grandfather, and both grandmothers wrote memoirs, and to say they were self-published would be an exaggeration.
We're talking pen and ink. In my grandfather's case, it's pencil on yellowing dime-store copy book.

One of these days I'll dig them out and properly transcribe them.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I feel like I've only occasionally read memoir because I was like "wow, I feel like reading a memoir". There are people who come to the library and come to the desk saying "I really want to read a memoir."

I read PROZAC NATION because I was doing my senior thesis on antidepressants, and I read THE CENTER CANNOT HOLD because I expected it to be better based on the title. I read NEVER SUCK A DEAD MAN'S HAND because of my late blooming interest in forensics. Mary Karr's LIT because the writing drew me in from the first page. I read Joan Didion's BLUE NIGHTS for the same reason. I read Clarence Clemons' memoir because I love Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (Asbury Park is adjacent to where I was born, you see), and I still mourn the Big Man's passing. I've read memoirs of people who were writing about times with animals that changed their lives (from James Herriot up to the more modern Randy Grimm writing about running a dog rescue, to Susannah Charlson's amazing SCENT OF THE MISSING [which I guess links two of my interest, dogs and forensics, ish) and I've read memoirs of people who decided to have a go of it on a farm (all of which were interesting, but none of which particularly stuck out for some reason). I read THE THINGS THEY CARRIED by Tim O'Brien, which I guess may as well be a novel but contains such fine writing it takes your breath away. And I Goddamn love Jenny Lawson's books. She is honest and heartbreaking and so funny there were times I laughed until I cried, and had to wait for the spell to pass before I could continue down the page (her blog is like this too).

Every life has stories worth telling, and worth listening to. But should everybody write a memoir? And how do you decide who will read it? My grandmother has occasionally said to me "You've had an interesting life. You should write about it". And I do, in a way, but I'm probably never going to write a memoir. It almost seems like nowadays, blogging is the gateway into memoir-ing. You write about your experiences, people who find relevance in that experience come and read (you hope) and then maybe you'll collect and condense it into a separate volume some day, bring it home with something that makes it compelling and interesting and salable.

Anonymous said...


You have no idea how valuable memoirs, journals, and collections of letters are in research. It's like having a time machine. You definitely should transcribe your grandfather's memoir.

Theresa said...

For leisure reading, I regularly pass by the memoir shelf. But for historical research, I live for memoirs, journals, and collections of letters. I often ask my history students what they think future historians will have to rely on as source material for the early 21st century. The digital age will certainly present some challenges.

AJ Blythe said...

My first response is to ask your child's name, how old s/he was, and to tell me more about her... (((hugs))) Janet. It isn't what you need to hear, but it's what they need you to ask. You're definitely a gummy shark.

The Critical Mom said...

This is wonderful advice--and reminds me of an article helping writers how to show the reader what's in it for him or her: see Emily Fox Gordon's essay on CONFIDING, not CONFESSING online in The American Scholar