Friday, August 17, 2018

Memoir, the category that cannot die

Memoir is a very tough sell these days. Although you see memoir in the deal news on Publishers Marketplace, for every deal made, there are probably ten thousand memoirs that didn't get picked up either by agents or publishers.

One of the big reasons is that most of us do not lead plot driven lives (thank all deities large and small!) and character driven books are excruciatingly hard to write if you're one of the characters.

When I talk to memoir writers I always ask five questions:

1. What choices did you make?
2. What did you sacrifice in making those choices?
3. How are your choices relevant to me?
4. What surprised you about yourself in this book?
5. What did you learn about yourself from writing this book?

Your memoir  has to be about more than what happened, and it has to have significance beyond your life.

If your memoir doesn't have those things, it's usually not suitable for a trade book deal.
That is not to say you shouldn't write it or have it published. More and more of these kinds
of memoir will be how historians research how people lived.

But there are excellent memoirs being published. A recent one that resonated with me is Vikki Warner's Tenemental which at first glance is about her adventures owning a three family house and renting apartments to a cast of characters that could find work in a Fellini film.

But it's also about much more than that as a good memoir always is.

And although I'm certainly never going to buy a house in Providence, Rhode Island, or a have a plumber on speed dial, the book gave me a lot of insight into aspects of my life too.

For example, in the introduction Ms. Warner says "I have chosen to own a complicated home" which I identified with having chosen to live in a converted tenement which is totally unlike the places I've lived before, or that anyone in my family has lived.

And "If you live among new ruins (ie dilapidated houses) you have to constantly remember not to take them as an indicator of your own worth in the world."  I liked that because once a (now former) client said to me "I hope this book sells well so you can move out of that closet you live in" not realizing I'd actually chosen "the closet", and I really loved it.

And lastly "we are safe from perfection" which I think I may have tattooed on my forearm just so I remember to read it every day. The context of it in the book is probably different than it is for me now, but that's the power of lovely insightful writing: it means more than what it's about.

I got a real sense of Ms. Warner as a person in this book; she did not present herself as either a paragon of virtue or vice. She was a three-dimensional character, interesting, compelling, real. And that's a hard thing to do when writing about yourself!

If you're working on a memoir, this is a book you should read as part of the "100 books to learn your category"


E.M. Goldsmith said...

I will not likely ever write a memoir. I can believe there are lots of great stories in peoples' lives now with a full plot of catastrophe followed by calamity. We are living under the curse, "May you live in interesting times." However, I am best represented by my fictional self so no memoir for me.

However, I might read Tenemental now. Not that my TBR pile isn't already a mile and a half high and threatening to seize my entire apartment. I seem unable to resist my queen's recommendations. Ah well.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ok boys and girls this one is from the heart. Not the bright red heart you slip through the slot of the decorated box in third grade on Valentine’s Day but from the depths of my heart.
(This is not a query but a rant of sorts.)
I wrote a memoir.
It’s got some aspects on Janet’s list but not all. It’s different because it’s a collection of over a hundred op-eds, articles, and columns wrapped in the life of a struggling wife and mother living in the generational shift of one foot in liberation and other is desperation.
From my first byline in ’88, until grandchildren four years ago, this book became a mission, because as I came to realize, the outcome of time is dwindling.

It’s a lifetime, my lifetime, from babies being born until their babies being born, it’s ‘everywoman’ words of wisdom and dumb-ass moves. I spent months, if not years making it shine. I used my last writing dime to have it edited. It is me.

And, nobody wants to read it.

Do you have any idea how heartbreaking it is to pen your DNA just to have someone throw the sodden tissue of it away?

I’m not stupid, I’m not naïve. No one wants to read (and spend their money on) a book about someone they don’t know. I have to offer something THEY want, something that THEY need. I thought I did, the industry says no.

We laugh about writing practice-books that become trunk novels. A memoir in a trunk?

Hey...somebody lift the lid, it’s dark in here.

Katja said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Noise In Space said...

"If you live among new ruins (ie dilapidated houses) you have to constantly remember not to take them as an indicator of your own worth in the world."

Don't mind me, I'll just be over here making this into a poster to hang at my desk. I've been living in NYC for four years now and I must say, a lot of the time, I feel like I'm just a very tall subway rat in this dirty, hard city.

Also, to the point about using memoir for history--this is exactly why I want my mom to publish the book she did on her mother-in-law (my grandma). Grandma was an army bride in Germany in the early 1960s, and while it may not interest many readers today, I think historians would find it fascinating.

mythical one-eyed peace officer said...


Yes, it is a paradox of sorts. Somebody, a number of folks, read each of those hundred pieces, and enjoyed them enough that whoever was paying you (or at least publishing you) had you keep at it. So why wouldn't people want to read a collection of them?

I've had some good fortune in having a number of my memoir essays published in a variety of places from large circulation magazines to small circulation so-called "literary" publications for which I have been paid small and sometimes larger than small amounts. Somebody must have enjoyed reading them and I even get a "fan letter" from somebody who does not know me now and again. So, again, why would not people want to read a collection? Just for fun?

The answer must be that not enough people want to read it to make it financially reasonable for a publisher. Well, I leave behind for my progeny and beyond my stories and that is good enough for me.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

K OCD Thanks for the sentiment but please, don't anyone feel sorry for me.
Sometimes the reality of traditional publishing is like ice water down your back. It warms, it dries, we move on.
I've written well over a million words and have been published hundreds of times. I've moved people, I've pissed them off, I've made them laugh, cry and yawn. Job accomplished. I'm not complaining. I'm disappointed. So what.

Just remember if you are going to write a memoir, be aware of your personal connection to the content and the emotional ramifications of rejection. And, come to terms with why you are writing it. Mine is a record of a woman and her writing life. (Yawn)

Have a nice day boys and girls and always remember, Janet is ten feet tall/long and her blowhole always spouts writing wisdom.

Casey Karp said...

"We are safe from perfection."

Oh, yeah! In a previous life, I tested software. You hear people in the industry say there's no such thing as bug-free code, and boy, howdy, is that true!

Doesn't mean there's no value in looking for the bugs and fixing them. It'll never be perfect, but it can be better.

It's not a big jump to realize the same thing is true of the software in our skulls. There's an analogy here about writers as the software testers of the brain. If something we write resonates with somebody else, it's probably because we've reported a bug they've seen.

PAH said...

I sometimes wonder if "names and places have been changed to protect privacy" in the creative nonfiction world of memoir is really just code-word for: good luck fact-checking any of this!

People in memoirs / nonfiction always seem quirkier, pithier, and wittier than in real life. I just assume about 75% of any memoir is, at best, stretched truth; at worst, it's plain made up; and somewhere in between, it is all just "to the best of my recollection." ;)

Anyways... just some ramblings of a recovering cynic. Nothing to see here.

Summers of Fire said...

I still feel incredibly lucky that my memoir was picked up by a small publisher. It took me over 6 years to write...2 years for it to find a home, with many revisions, and at the end a rewrite, to get it where it needed to be. I often beta read other memoirs to help out those I can, but the writers that are too stubborn to make a single change, well, there's always self-publishing. Which is why I don't read self-published books.

Theresa said...

Fascinating and practical insights into memoir. I've found that many of Janet's questions pertain to biography subjects as well.

Colin Smith said...

I'm totally with those who encourage the writing of memoir for the sake of posterity. Traditional publishing may demur, but historians of the future will love you for it. Part of what intrigues me with autobiography and memoir is that it is personal, told with the biases and understanding of the person who was there. It's not the historian's view. The historian can look back and see the big picture of what was happening. And while historians can be as guilty of bias and filtering of facts, they have less excuse and at least have the tools to check their biases. Part of the charm of memoir/autobiography is the lack of such filtering. And when you're trying to understand why people thought and acted how they did during a particular time, that kind of unvarnished personal perspective is gold dust.

Paul McCartney has often criticized Beatle biographers saying, "I was there! I know what happened." However, as Mark Lewisohn has ably shown in his exhaustive biography/history of the Beatles early years (TUNE IN), even those who were there only saw part of the picture. And their recollection of events is as colored by their perception of things as anyone else's. That doesn't discount McCartney's recollections. But they perhaps tell us more about him, his values, and his worldview than about what *actually* happened. :)

2Ns: While I believe self-publishing should be strategy, not an "if-everything-else-fails" backup plan, in your case I'd say self-publish that baby. Have it in a nice book form that you can gift to your children and grandchildren, and they can pass down to successive generations of Ns. Sure, it would be nice if S&S published your work and put it into the hands of thousands (and made a buck or two for you), but I don't get the impression that's the only reason you wrote your memoir. Hence my advice.

Barbara Etlin said...

I'm sure I will never write my memoirs. But if I did, I have the perfect title: Loyalties and Royalties. :-)

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Tenemental sounds really good.

I also liked Girlish.

And The Greening of Mrs. Duckworth.

2NNs ... Someone will read it some day. Some grandchild or great grandchild will discover it and you will become their writing mentor from afar. They will learn about your times, your personality, and your writing journey and they will be inspired by it.

I hope that's actually encouraging and doesn't just make you mad.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

COLIN I agree with your self-publishing thinking and one day I may go that route for future Ns.

JENNIFER, no way would I ever be mad because someone offered a suggestion. I suggest all the time. A 'real' book, other than a stack of papers held together by a stretched out elastic band certainly makes sense.

After the death of my mother,(an unpublished writer), I devoured her words as if seed for a dyeing bird. She inspired me. I'd like to think that someday my words might inspire the little ones who enhance my life now.

Hey guys enough about me. Write-on.

Steve Stubbs said...

Carolynnwith2Ns said: "No one wants to read (and spend their money on) a book about someone they donÆt know."

Well, um, yes they do. "A book about someone they donÆt know" is what fiction is. You just have to make it interesting, that's all. "Women's Fiction with some nasty stuff" sounds interesting to me. I can't buy it because I don't know your real name.

But it sounds interesting.

You've had a sucessful publishign career since 1988 with hundreds of credits. The people who should be discouraged are the van Goghs of the literary world. They die without publishing anything and shoot themselves after slicing off an ear.

You're successful.

I assume you still live in CT. Go to NY and whoop it up.

Mary said...

Linda and I actually wrote memoirs about a similar topic and both of ours were published. It just goes to show that there can be room. My agent is shopping my second memoir but after that I may have just exhausted everything there is to say about myself.

Craig F said...

I have never considered a memoir. I don't want to build a platform about what I am. I could be famous in some ways if I wished it to be. I don't.

The only person I know that could pull off that I the lady with the thong up her ass. That would be 2NNs.

I would prefer to build my writing career on my imagination and the odd belief of what the future may hold. Maybe some of those won't be fiction in the future. I don't know.

I do know that I have had and continue to have one hell of a life. Please don't tell anyone.

Gingermollymarilyn said...

Belated congratulations to Theresa! That's amazing;can't wait to read it!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ah ha, someone who remembers the true meaning of...the thong.
I'm telling everyone how amazing and memoir-worthy you are !

MA Hudson said...

2Ns - I reckon once your subsequent books are published, there'll be a mighty long line of people wanting to read your memoir.

Karen McCoy said...

A couple days late (and at a conference) and learning a lot from everyone's comments--I'm writing a fictionalized memoir about librarianship (think Devil Wears Prada meets The Office), and this info is really helpful for that too. Another amusing fictionalized memoir is the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan for the fantastical. And dragons.